Saturday I finished The Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon. Simply put, it was wonderful, striking all the right chords with me. In some ways, it's a genre tale of medieval adventure, which is alright by me in and of itself. Yet Chabon does wonderful things that extend the genre. First, even as a genre tale, it reaches beyond many conceits while embracing others. It's medieval, but it's a different location -- the multicultural crossroads along the Volga river near the Caspian Sea. The protagonists are familiar, yet original. A scarecrow of a Frank partnered with a stout African evokes comparisons to Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in many ways, yet the fact that they are both Jews puts an interesting twist on the pair and their adventures. (Chabon admits in the afterword that the working title of the book was Jews with Swords). So it's an interesting take on the adventure tale in it's setting and characters alone. But what really makes it stand apart is the language. Generally, I am all for economy of words. I love Hemingway. Sometimes it's best not to tell the reader every last detail of every last meal (here is where a lot of genre fiction, particularly serial fantasy, falls very short y being too damn long). Though the book is fairly short, less that 200 pages, Chabon spins these sentences that are simply wonderful. He knows when to give us details -- usually in decribing a scene that reveals a lot about a character. He also knows when to not to say things and just have the protagonists acting against or within events. There are battles and massacres, but those are never described, just related as background as the protagonists move on.
I love Chabon's langauge in this book so much I will quote it at length (again). This is a couple of sentences from the book's climax, when the protagonists are figuring out a way to restore Filaq, the lost prince (who is actually a princess) to her throne: "Filaq remembered ho her brother looked on the summer day she last saw him, tall and gangly, speaking tenderly to the falcon on his arm, as he rode to hunt amid the plane trees and the cicadas and the wild surge to the grapevines in the hills. She looked away so they would not see her tears, and notices, 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." (167)