While the serialized fiction story was once a leading form of publishing, the style has fallen out of fashion lately.
Nowadays, we prefer to consume our books in one big lump.
What better way to return to an old-fashioned publishing method than with a semi-traditional historical adventure story?
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon charts the adventures of two Jewish bandits in the 10th century, as they attempt to return a prince to their rightful throne.
Gentlemen of the Road is a book that plays into your expectations while subverting them at the same time.
Although in novel form the original serial publication can read a little disjointed, Chabon’s mastery of language helps paper over the cracks. Read our full review of Gentlemen of the Road here.
Gentlemen Of The Road Plot Summary
It’s 950 AD, or thereabouts, and two self-styled “gentlemen of the road” are traveling the world (If you like books with themes of travel, check out Travels With Herodotus).
Amram, an Abyssinian who is as quick-witted as he is strong, is still mourning the disappearance of his daughter.
Zelikman, a Frankish physician, has clever fingers, a morbid sense of humor, and a deep trauma from his time in a pogrom.
“Gentlemen of the road” is more than just a title the pair have chosen for each other.
It’s a euphemism, hiding the real goals of the traveling pair. The two are bandits, seeking gullible strangers to con into giving them money.
But life on the road is about to take a turn. While preparing to collect their winnings from a staged duel, the two gentlemen are approached by a mahout.
The mahout wants the pair to protect Filaq, a Khazar prince who is on the run after his family was murdered by a usurper named Buljan.
While the gentlemen contemplate the offer, life takes the choice out of their hands. Mahout is murdered and the two are forced to escape with Filaq.
Filaq swears vengeance on Buljan, while the gentlemen determine to get Filaq home so they can collect their earnings.
However, when the group makes it to Filaq’s home they discover a disaster site.
Filaq’s family has been murdered, mercenaries are on their way, and things are about to get topsy-turvy.
What follows is a rollicking adventure along the twists and turns of the Silk Road.
The three find themselves thrown apart and drawn together again, never quite stumbling their way into safety but frequently finding increasing danger.
After time in prison, faked deaths, and even a close encounter with an elephant army, the gentlemen and their charge finally make their way back to the Khazarian stronghold.
But the battle for the throne has some bloody twists to come.
Gentlemen Of The Road Setting And History
As a work of historical fiction, Gentlemen of the Road is set in an area not hugely explored by the genre (If you like historical fiction themes, also check out Malibu Rising).
Even fans of historical epics might find themselves a little lost in the twisting and turning empire of the Khazars.
In addition to understanding some background to the setting, you might find your reading experience is enhanced by a better understanding of its publishing process.
Gentlemen of the Road is set around 950 AD in Khazaria, an area that is now southwest Russia.
The narrative journeys across Khazaria, with almost every chapter introducing a new setting, culture, and people.
The lead characters are all Jewish, although Chabon was determined to divert the traditional stereotypes of Jews in old stories.
With much of the action traversing an Ancient Jewish kingdom, it’s a fresh look at the stale roles writers have tended to place Jewish characters into.
You don’t need much knowledge of the Khazars to understand Gentlemen of the Road, although a vague understanding of the area can help you immerse yourself in the action better.
But the Khazars themselves are still fairly unknown.
Determining facts about the polyglot, polyethnic society has proven to be difficult as few original sources have remained.
While Chabon has done his research, the actual details of the empire are still up for debate.
Will this affect how you enjoy the novel? Not really. Gentlemen of the Road weaves such an interesting story, and Chabon’s descriptive writing is so enticing, that you’ll be happy just to go with the flow.
Gentlemen of the Road was originally published in 15 installments in The New York Times Magazine.
The serial ran from January 28th, 2007 to May 6th, 2007. After the serial was finished, the story was published as a book.
Very few changes occurred between the initial serial publication and the book release.
The book still has that sense of a serial publication. Each section is fairly self-contained, so readers could pick it up and enjoy a single story.
In novel format, it can leave the story feeling a bit disjointed.
You can imagine putting it down for a week and then picking it up a week later, having forgotten the details of the novel.
And if you skipped a week, it wouldn’t completely ruin the experience.
The serial format isn’t entirely disruptive.
The central plot and characters are followed throughout the novel, even if they tend to get into an adventure that wraps itself up by the end of the chapter.
However, this isn’t necessarily a book to get lost in on a lazy afternoon. Instead, each adventure might be better enjoyed for its own merits, before moving on to the next.
Gentlemen Of The Road Review
While writing Gentlemen of the Road, author Michael Chabon nicknamed the novel Jews With Swords.
He wanted to play with the traditional stereotypes of Jewish people in the world of the Middle Ages.
Hence the Khazaria setting — the ancient kingdom with a large Jewish population that’s still largely unknown offered a background rife with possibility.
Chabon clearly delighted in the lack of limits this setting presented. Journeying through Khazaria is perhaps one of the highlights of Gentlemen of the Road.
Chabon’s writing style offers luscious descriptions of each new place and people we encounter.
When we get a rare break from the action, you’ll want to spend a little more time sitting with his descriptions.
While Jews With Swords might not entirely capture the scope of the novel, it’s a pretty good introduction to what you can expect.
Chabon has played with the stereotypes, sometimes leaning away from them, sometimes leaning in.
Humor is woven throughout the narrative and at times it can be hard to know whether you should be taking it seriously.
Zelikman is a Jewish doctor with a traumatic history, occasional bouts of melancholy, and a leaning toward the morbid.
Amram, Jewish by accident/choice, also carries with him a traumatic history and occasional bouts of melancholy. But he also has a big hammer.
The two do spend a fair amount of time sword swinging, although they often turn to their other talents to get out of sticky scrapes.
In this sense, Chabon leans very much into classical tropes.
Other times, Chabon attempts to do things a little differently.
His Jewish characters aren’t the persecuted background figures of many historical novels, nor the background persecutors of so much fantasy and adventure fiction.
Instead, they fall in and out of both boxes, as well as numerous others.
But the attempts to subvert our expectations can be at the expense of the plot, helped by the original serial format.
The plot keeps building without really going anywhere.
Each section feels unmoored from the last and while constant cliffhangers can feel frustrating, the lack of suspense between chapters in Gentlemen of the Road seems an oversight.
There’s certainly a lot of charm to Gentlemen of the Road.
Frequent elephant or hat diversions might have been a cheeky wink at continuity when the book was in serial form, yet they remain strangely endearing in novel format.
It’s certainly helped along by Chabon’s indulgent writing. You’ll want to linger on some of the descriptions just to soak up the wordplay.
Unfortunately, his luxury style is less suited to action, and action so heavily dominates the plot.
While there are some stumbles along the way, Gentlemen of the Road still walks a path you’ll want to keep traveling, especially for fans of Chabon’s style.
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon is a book (see also: 9 Best Michael Chabon Books)that plays with stereotypes while delighting in classical references.
Originally published as a 15-part serial, Gentlemen of the Road has an old-fashioned touch and some charming descriptions that seem almost at odds with the blood-and-guts story.
While at times the combo can sit a little uncomfortably, the intriguing backdrop and fast-paced plot keep the reader engaged.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where Is Gentlemen Of The Road Set?
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon is set in Khazaria around 950 AD.
Khazaria was occupied by the Khazars, a semi-nomadic people of Turkic descent. The novel encounters many areas of the Khazars.
What Is Gentlemen Of The Road About?
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon follows two Jewish bandits as they attempt to protect Filaq, a fugitive Khazar prince whose family was murdered by a usurper.
Frigate is attempting to get revenge on the usurper, reclaim his throne, and keep his secret hidden.