The novel follows the misguided adventures of wandering Jewish physician and swordsman Zelikman and the African ex-Byzantine mercenary Amram as they travel eastward past the Crimea and toward the Caucus Mountains. They stumble across a coup in the mysterious nation of Khazar, a state formed by steppe nomads who adopted Judaism instead of Christianity or Islam. And against their better judgment they end up helping one of the sole remaining heirs to the position of war bek (the temporal ruler of Khazar, who is supposedly under the authority of the spiritual leader, the kagan), a person who is not quite what they seem to be, on a lurching, uneven journey toward a kind of justice.
In his afterword, following a lengthy (and for my money completely unnecessary) explanation of why a serious writer is tackling such escapist adventure fare, Chabon explains that he wanted to write a story about Jews with swords that wouldn't be immediately dismissed as an attempt at satire or surrealism. And in the long-lost kingdom of Khazar he found a brief time and place where he could tell a story filled with wild invention and supposition while still retaining a historical element.
Some of my favorite quotes from the novel (bear in mind that all of these are set up by at least a paragraph or two of narrative that I feel are too lengthy to excerpt here but that make them all the funnier or more heartwarming):
"Just when did you acquire a conscience?" Zelikman said.and
"A figure of speech. Which will it be?"
"I want Hillel. And do not repeat, Amram, that a horse is a horse, because, history, circumstances, and I have disproved that argument many times."
"Take care of what you say," Amram advised him. "He healed me of a sword cut to the neck five years ago, and I've been carrying him on my back ever since."and
It was remarked by one of the eminent physician-rabbis of the city of Regensburg, in his commentary on the Book of Samuel, a work now lost but quoted in the responses of Rabbi Judah the Pious, that apart from Torah the only subject truly worthy of study is the saving of men's lives. Measured by the criterion of this teaching--propounded by his grandfather--Zelikman counted two great scholars among his present acquaintance, and one of them was a horse.and
Filaq wiped the blade on the flap of his tunic and then handed it back, haft first. "Thank you for saving my life," he said.and
"I don't save lives," Zelikman said. "I just prolong their futility."
"The offer to join us was a simple one, really," Joseph Hirkanos said when Zelikman tumbled into the basket, looking him up and down from the tips of his curled slippers to his blackened hedgehog of a plaited beard to the clumsy windings of his head wrap. "But I divine that you find a way to complicate everything."and
"He is in love with a hat," said Flower of Life, frowning at Zelikman through the crook of Amram's arm. . . . "If so," Amram said, somewhat weary of the matter of Zelikman and hats, "it would not be the first time."and finally
And then they took the first road that led out of the city, unmindful of whether it turned east or south, their direction a question of no interest to either of them, their destination already intimately known, each of them wrapped deep in his thick fur robes and in the solitude that they had somehow contrived to share.