I finished this book New Year's Eve but have been spending a good bit of time thinking about what to say about it. My immediate reaction to the book was that it was something of an homage to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but the more I thought about that, the more I had to wonder if it was possible that any two companions doing fantasy-like things would not evoke comparisons to Fritz Leiber's best-known heroes. And this led me to thinking about the whole "buddy" trope in books, TV, and movies and its possible roots. Is there a history of "buddy" writing outside the 20th century, or is it something relatively new? All of which distracted me from serious thought about Gentlemen of the Road and what needed to be said about it.
The novel itself is a lot of fun, and Chabon's mastery of sentence structure has never been more evident than this novel, where he spends time creating a voice that feels like a hybrid of Howard in the Conan books and Alexandre Dumas. I didn't discover until after I finished it that it really was a serial novel, published by chapter in the New York Times Magazine, and while I doubt he was getting paid by the word, Gentlemen of the Road certainly has that feel to it. I doubt, however, that the readers of the New York Times got the wonderful pen-and-ink illustrations from Gary Gianni (current illustrator of Prince Valiant) that the novel includes.
Zelikman and Amram are adventurers in Middle Ages Asian Russia, when the land was fairly peacefully shared by Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Following the trope fairly closely, Chabon gives these two characters wide-ranging backgrounds: Zelikman is a non-practicing Jewish Frank and Amram is far-travelling African whose home country is never definitively stated. And also like Leiber's characters, tragedy seems to be the most important factor in their background. We're never quite sure why Zelikmann has abandoned his family, but we do know that Amram is searching for his daughter, missing for some twenty years. Together they are swept up from their mild con jobs, used to get them spending money between real working jobs, into the effects of a coup in their region. Their camaraderie is evident in the con they pull and their reaction to events as they unfold, returning Filaq, formerly an heir to the overthrown kingdom, to the capital city of Atel with an eye towards revenge.
And as usually happens in this kind of story, things never quite work out as expected; after a few missteps getting started, the companions find themselves with a new manservant (named Hanukkah) and tri-partite war on their hands. And somehow, elephants show up as important plot points throughout the story, including the moment revenge is achieved in a scene that is on the one hand brutal but also blackly funny in Chabon's hands. Sadly, this is one of the few moments that are really funny in the novel, which gets away from the tradition of Leiber and Dumas. In fact, Zelikman is almost always portrayed as dour or even depressed, and a lot of what Amram does are attempts to distract him from his cares. Fortunately, just the very name of Hanukkah is humorous and he acts as a decent foil to their world-wariness.
Nonetheless, Gentlemen of the Road is an enjoyable (if really short) read, and it is clear that Chabon is having a lot of fun putting the characters and settings together. When you set a novel down and wish that you could read more about the characters, that's always a good sign. More adventures of Zelikman and Amram are needed.