"I am not overly encumbered by principle, as you know," Zelikman continued. "I am a gentleman of the road, an apostate from the faith of my fathers, a renegade, a hired blade, a brigand, a thief ..." (p. 119-20)The working title of this short novel, according to the author, was Jews with Swords: it's a pretty accurate description, though it fails to mention Chabon's baroque joy in language, or the illustrations that lend an air of Boys' Own Adventure, or the clear, credible evocation of the tenth-century Khazar Empire.
Amram is an massive Abyssinian mercenary who wields a Viking axe but is quite capable of slaying his opponents on the game-board or in philosophical discourse; Zelikman, his skinny companion, is a Frankish physician whose rapier, 'Lancet', was forged specifically to circumvent the laws that prevented Jews bearing weapons even in self-defense. Both men have lost loved ones; both have lived by their wits -- as evidenced by the opening scene, a rigged tavern brawl in which they abscond with the proceeds of the betting pool -- and are competent warriors as well as practicing Jews.
The two find themselves taking responsibility for a fugitive Khazar prince, Filaq, who is not all that he seems. (His secret may well be more evident to the reader than to his travelling companions.) By the time they part ways from Filaq, all three have been party to brutality, revelation and deception.
Gentlemen of the Road can be read as a straightforward swashbuckling adventure story, and satisfies on that level: it's also an examination of the lives of two vastly different men united by their faith, and by a flexible morality that rests on that faith and an innate ... virtue, for lack of a better word. Their relationship is complex. Both have lost much that they cared for, but they've encompassed loss in very different ways. Amram had lost much and had fared widely alone, but Zelikman was simply born lonely (p.103) Amram finds joy in battle and discourse; Zelikman, a melancholy type, smokes his hash pipe and tries to use his skills as a physician to offset the havoc and slaughter he sees all around him.
Despite their solitude -- two figures moving through a vast wasteland replete with danger -- there's a sense of Jewish ... community, solidarity. At every turn Amram and Zelikman encounter other Jews: for instance, a band of Radanites (Jewish merchants, credited with keeping the Roman Empire's trade routes running) who give Zelikman news of his family in Regensburg, and provide invaluable assistance.
Chabon's afterword is an interesting essay on why he chose to write an adventure story:
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. This long, long tradition of Jewish adventurers may look a bit light on the Conans or D'Artagnans; our greatest heroes less obviously suited to exploits of derring-do and arms. (p.203)