Thursday, August 25, 2011

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

As he explains in the Afterword, Michael Chabon originally intended to call this novel Jews With Swords. That would have been a perfectly accurate title, although he is perhaps correct that readers would then have jumped to the conclusion that it was a broad ethnic comedy. Rather, it is... a somewhat more sophisticated ethnic comedy, perhaps?

It's the tenth century A.D. and we're in that part of the world that would, over a thousand years later, become modern-day Iran, Azerbaijan, and Russia. Our story focuses on two street-smart bandits and swindlers, the Jews With Swords of the almost-title (although to be precise, one prefers to wield an enormous Viking battleaxe instead), who fall in with a hunted fugitive from the Khazar royal family. The throne of an empire is decided.

This is practically the very definition of 'swashbuckling'. It was originally a 15-part serial running in the New York Times Magazine. It also comes with illustrations by Gary Gianni, who also does the Prince Valiant comic. The overall effect is of a nineteenth-century swashbuckler. But the language is modern, if the prose densely purple.

I brought it as it seemed appropriate, as we're traveling in the old heart of the Byzantine Empire, if not on the frontier where the action is set. The novel is short, although Chabon's prose isn't as quick a read as some authors. I enjoyed it while it lasted, although it might have been better drawn out in serial form.

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