This is a Jewish sword-and-horse historical novel of swashbuckling and derring-do, consciously patterned after the great adventure stories of the early 20th century. The cover art (Andrew Davidson) & interior illustrations (Gary Gianni) fit this perfectly—the wood-engraving style is exactly right, and the only thing that would make it perfect is (expensive) watercolour-style colour plates.
I only have two criticisms of this book; it’s too short, and there aren’t nearly enough female characters. The one woman with any agency spends nearly all of the book, and the rest of her life, disguised as a man.
It’s set in the Kingdom of the Khazars, around 950 CE, and follows the adventures of two wandering Jewish adventurers from very different backgrounds. Zelikmann is a Frankish physician suffering from acute depression; Amram is an Abyssinian mercenary. Together, they
fight crime put an exiled prince back on a usurped throne.
Since this is a quintessentially Jewish text, it’s very much concerned with two fundamental icons of the Matter of Fantasy—the Road and the Book. Chabon’s afterword talks in detail about the yearning for travel and adventure, and of course there’s a lot of black humour to be had contrasting that to the history of the Jews. Two complementary quotations, first from the book itself—
She looked away so they would not see her tears, and noticed, on its carved and gilded stand, the giant illuminated Ibn Khordadbeh that had so enchanted her as a child, with its maps and preposterous anatomies and flat-foot descriptions of miracles and wonders, page after page of cities to visit and peoples to live among and selves to invent, out there, beyond the margins of her life, along the roads and in the kingdoms.
—and from the afterword.
For better and worse it has been one long adventure—a five-thousand-year Odyssey—from the moment of the true First Commandment, when God told Abraham lech lecha: Thou shalt leave home. Thou shalt get lost. Thou shalt find slander, oppression, opportunity, escape, and destruction. Thou shalt, by definition, find adventure.