Christine Strelan - Between the Covers

Gentlemen of the Road

Michael Chabon

Sceptre 2007

Are you a fan of Michael Palins Ripping Yarns? Is a 10th viewing of Raiders of the Lost Ark your idea of a spiffing good time? Did you grow up on those archaic adventure books, with stiff, furry pages, graphic illustrations and peeling gold bits imprinted on the covers? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then Michael Chabons new novel is for you.

Set in the Caucasus mountains around 950 AD, it stars two itinerant rogues, the titular gentlemen of the road. Zelikman and Amran are small-time fraudsters, drifting around ancient Khazaria and living by their wits. They bicker constantly, like cops in a buddy movie, but will defend each other to the death, should any bad-ass mean guys make the mistake of tangling with either. Amran is a giant African whose huge axe is named Mother-Defiler, its haft an orgy of interpenetrating runes, the quarter-moon of its blade glowing cold, as if with satisfied recollection of all the heads it had ever lopped from spouting necks. Zelikman is from the misty kingdom of the Franks, and would rather heal wounds than inflict them, but hes a handy man in a fight.

The story is non-stop action, with insurgent armies, bandits, treasure, wild landscapes, exotic cities, fabulous weapons, elephants, and of course the compulsory interlude with golden-hearted sex workers, who lounge on silk cushions and dress like belly dancers. Tomboys like me will thrill to the inclusion of our favourite motif: the girl-dressed-as-a-boy character.

Chabon has mastered the wordy, descriptive style of the original stories. His usual wit creeps in often, but this is not a tongue-in-cheek pastiche. He really believes in his tale, and has some timely points to make about politics and religion. As Zelikman says, I want nothing to do with soldiers, armies, chains of command. All the evil in the world derives from the actions of men acting in a mass against other masses of men.

Most impressive of all is the five-star presentation. Gentlemen of the Road is a convincing facsimile of those old rip-roaring Boys Own novels, and even includes illustrations typical of the genre. A must for armchair adventurers, and anyone who loves real, beautifully constructed books.

Books reviewed are available at The Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Square.

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