courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore
Jews With Swords
That, by the way, is the author’s working title for this novel. It’s a madcap romp through the perilous years around 900 CE, in and around what will become Azerbaijan. The “Gentlemen of the Road” are a group akin to “Ladies of the Night”–they’re actually bandits.
There is a white Frank called Zelikman, who is a Radanite Jew, wandering the Caucuses and the Middle East. There is a black Abyssinian called Amram, who is also Jewish. (Abyssinia will later become Ethiopia and Eritrea, and these people have a mythology about being descended from the pairing of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.) There is a horse called Hillel, who is a mix of Arabian and local, who is the best friend of Zelikman, along with his beloved hat.
The Gentlemen of the Road soon meet up with a spoiled local stripling prince called Faliq, or Little Elephant. His entire family has been murdered by a usurper to the Bek’s throne and he has fled, in the company of his trusty mahout, or elephant handler. The mahout wants to deliver the prince safely to distant relatives, but the prince wants to escape and go wreak vengeance on the usurper. Although his chances of success are very slim.
When the mahout takes an arrow to the head, it is up to the Gentlemen of the Road to tilt at this windmill and see the quixotic quest through to its satisfying finale. The two Jews are fascinated by the prince’s legendary Kingdom of Khazaria, which is a polyglot empire said to be ruled by a converted Jew. This is one of the reasons they lend their lancet and their axe and their hooves, respectively, to the cause of Faliq.
Keep your phone or world atlas handy as you read this novel: I ran into lots and lots of historical peoples and places I didn’t know about. And I loved it! Besides
- Arsiyah and etc.
I found myself running into configurations of countries and ethnicities that I did not recognize. Being so firmly rooted in the second millennium, it was wonderfully interesting and a bit shocking to see how different things were in the first millennium. For example, Zelikman is a Frank. You interpret that, as a modern person, to mean he is French. But he comes from a family of physicians in Regensberg! Bavaria. Southern Germany. That messed with my head. Also, a black Jewish Kingdom in Africa. A country of people as mixed as modern-day America, and a Jewish throne which employs Muslim mercenaries to defend it.
In addition, the plot involved multiple raids by murderous “Northmen” with pale skin and blonde or red hair, who came in longships. Naturally I thought they were Vikings. Nope. Russians. The Kievan Rus. (Ukrainians, really.) Whoa! Talk about mind-blowing.
Since learning is one of the principal pleasures of reading for me, and I always enjoy a novel with a strong sense of place, I loved this book. If I were a dog I would have rolled in it.
Zeligman’s weapon is an oversized lancet, a needle-like sword even thinner than a fencing foil. Why? Because Jews in his country are not allowed to carry weapons of any kind.
A word about the style. I’ve never read anything by Chabon before, so I don’t know if he typically writes like this. But he seems to be trying to be the Jane Austen of 952. For some reason this didn’t bother me, although I did have to read several paragraph-length sentences more than once or twice:
All that remained of the temple, reared by Alexander during his failed conquest of Caucasia and affiant now to that failure and to the ruin of his gods, was a wind-“worn pedestal and the candle stub of a fluted column, against which a would-be ruffian named Hanukkah sat propped with his right hand over the wound in his sizable belly, as he had sat for two long days and night waiting with mounting impatience for the angel of death.”
Not since I read The Secret Garden as a child have I enjoyed pen-and-ink illustrations so much. Also, the chapter headings like the one above.
Rating: Five healing herbs! I loved this book.