Jews With Swords

A thousand years ago in the Caucasus, two "gentlemen of the road" - the giant Abyssinian warrior and shatranj player Amram and the gaunt Frankish physician Zelikman - have just pulled off their usual con, a staged duel. Before they can collect their ill-gotten gains, fate brings to them a young boy, last survivor of a slaughtered noble family, and they are quickly swept up into pursuits far more noble than those to which they are accustomed.

Today, as Melbourne sweltered in 45 degree heat, I finished my first book of 2010, Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road, including the afterword in which Chabon reveals its original working title, Jews With Swords. It's one of the most exciting books I've read in ages, and perhaps the most fun; a real adventure novel, short (under 200 pages) and pacey. This may well be partly due to the novel's serialised origin, but I think it's just as much to do with Chabon truly embracing the genre he has chosen.

This isn't just a swords and sandals adventure romp, though; it's placed in a real historical context, around 950 AD, and the situations and nations in the book are all based on the real world. There's no evil wizard, no bizarre monsters, but they're redundant when Chabon is able to paint just as vividly the contemporary wonders of war elephants, the marauding Rus, and the bizarre weapons of his protagonists (Amram carries a rune-covered northern axe, while Zelikman's blade is custom-made and resembles nothing so much as a giant needle). The characters are instantly likeable and have a depth perhaps surprising to those not familiar with the genre, but above all it's the wit and intelligence with which the prose drips that makes this such an enjoyable read.

It's only the second novel of Chabon's I've read, and it was a world away from The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. If Lieber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books are anything like this, I'll have to check them out too, though I can't help but think Chabon's novel is a greatly improved version, not just informed by his predecessors, but building on them and adding in his own particular form of literary genius. He dedicates the book to Michael Moorcock, another author whose work I have heard much about but have read little; indeed, my only experience of him is Stormbringer, one of his earliest novels featuring his most famous creation, Elric of Melniboné. I need to read more of him, too.

I know I've still to catch up with the last of the Bunch of Authors books - I will get around to it. I suppose now, though, I'll have to finish And Another Thing; if it sounds like I consider that a chore, well, that's not quite how I feel, but it isn't quite the glorious fun I was hoping for either. There are some nice ideas in it, though, and the characters, while they don't quite feel like the Adams originals, are at least going somewhere new, though there's far less of Ford than I'd like. Still half a novel to go, though, so who knows? I do feel that I'm reading for about half a dozen people though, since several of my friends can't bring themselves to read it and are waiting for my report from the field...

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