Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon is a 10th century adventure set in Kazhar, on the shores of the Caspian Sea. The city of Atil, the Khazarian capital, was a multicultural and cosmopolitan city, where Jews, Muslims, Christians, and pagans lived in relative peace for a few decades, until the city was sacked by Russian invaders in collusion with the Byzantine empire. The Khazar ruling classes converted to Judaism sometime in the 8th century, possibly for political reasons - to avoid committing to either their powerful Christian or Muslim neighbors.
The ‘gentlemen of the road’ are a Frankish jewish physician named Zelikman, and an Abyssinian, former Byzantine mercenary, giant of a man named Amran. They have been running scams and stealing for a living for many years together, traveling the roads of eastern Europe and the middle east.
They are talked into taking a Khazar prince to safety, the son of the murdered and usurped king. The prince is spoiling for revenge, and wishes only to return to Atil to kill the usurper. Adventure ensues.
The novel has all the elements of an adventure story, and is well written and thoroughly enjoyable. Somehow, though, it fell slightly flat. Maybe my expectations were too high, or maybe Chabon was simply holding back, unable to set aside 21st century irony long enough to write a really exciting swashbuckler. The overall feel of the novel is one of resignation and near-despair over the impossibility of peace and prosperity.
Actually, the novel has one element that is not normally found in adventure stories. Recall that in the classical adventure story, the not quite reputable hero ends up as the sharp sword for the kind and just but deposed king, and relishes that role, usually giving a speech to somebody about liberty or honor or justice, identifying those concepts with the king against the foreign or domestic usurper. In Gentlemen of the Road this element is mostly missing. Chabon gives us no reason to believe that justice is on the side of the to-be-restored nobility. If anything, the cycle of vengeance and injustice will be accelerated, and Zelikman knows it, but can’t help himself or the situation.
The taste that is left at the end is one of dust and ashes; as in any story set a thousand years ago, it is a reminder of the ultimate futility of our aspirations and efforts.
Still, this is an enjoyable novel, and one that seems to offer more than surface satisfaction.