Two men from opposite ends of the globe, united by their common Jewish faith and a knack for parting fools from their gold, find their low-key bandit lifestyle upended when they get sucked into a civil war for the throne of Khazaria, the last (and only) Jewish kingdom of the Middle Ages. Tall and blond, Zelikman is a Frankish physician in self-imposed exile from his homeland after witnessing his family murdered in an anti-Jewish uprising. Amram is an enormous, intimidating warrior from Abyssinia, a land whose people, despite their black skin, claim descent from Solomon through his relationship with the Queen of Sheba. Amram has a monstrous axe named "Mother Defiler" (though the translation varies), but he's solemn and thoughtful, and prefers to think things through before acting. Zelikman uses a thin, agile rapier, and his morbidly cynical outlook on life and loose tongue seem to be little more than the underpinnings of a death wish. It's unclear how they became traveling companions, but it's clear that they have a growing fondness for each other, no matter how often each pretends otherwise.
The story opens with the two men conning some villagers out of their gold by staging a fake fight to the death. Playing off the fact that no one would take them for companions, Zelikman and Amram get into a very public argument in the village inn. They allow the argument to escalate until the two men are outside with blades drawn. The innkeeper, who is in on the scam, scrambles to take bets -- with, of course, nearly all being placed on the hulking Amram to win. After some dancing around to draw out the betting, Zelikman "kills" Amram, and the two men then wait in a nearby stable for the innkeeper to return with their portion of the winnings.
Instead of the innkeeper, though, they are confronted by an old mahout, a trainer of war elephants from Khazaria, who figured out their scam and followed them to the stable. Rather than rat them out, the mahout has a proposition. He wants them to protect and escort Filaq, an exiled Khazar prince, who is being hunted by Bouljan, the reigning bek (roughly a general-king), who overthrew Filaq's father and murdered the rest of his family. While Zelikman and Amram consider the offer, assassins appear and kill the mahout. They grab Filaq and, against the prince's direct commands to stay and fight, they flee.
Staying a step ahead of the assassins, they head for the town where Filaq's relatives are from, hoping that bringing them Filaq will net them a huge reward. Filaq's continual attempts to escape, though, force them to tie him up and transport him as more or less a prisoner.
When they arrive at the town, they find the place sacked by an army of Rus warriors (an eastern branch of Scandinavian Vikings) and its inhabitants put to the sword. An army of loyal soldiers arrives. While they are too late to save Filaq's relatives, Filaq exhorts them to follow him and rescue his brother, Alp, held captive by Bouljan. But the army is so inspired that they decide to kill Bouljan and put Filaq on the throne instead of Alp.
Bouljan is no fool, though. His own soldiers crush Filaq's army. He captures Filaq and Amram, and reveals that Filaq is, in fact, a girl. Zelikman tries to convince himself that a rescue attempt is insane, but ultimately he can't just leave Amram -- or Filaq, whom he realizes he has feelings for -- behind. Unfortunately, he is only able to rescue Amram. Her influence shattered, Filaq is raped, beaten, and sold into prostitution. The two men rescue her, treat her wounds, both physical and mental, and then decide to gain the help of the kagan (Khazaria's spiritual leader, and a practical counter to the bek's power). After sneaking into the kagan's guarded tower, where he is kept as part exalted prophet and part prisoner, the kagan agrees to support Filaq if they help him escape his gilded cage by faking his death.
However, it turns out that Filaq's brother, Alp, died while in Bouljan's hands, and to cement her control of Khazaria, Filaq must keep this fact a secret and pretend to be Alp going forward. There's a massive battle between the two sides, but with the kagan's influence, Filaq's army overwhelms Bouljan's supporters. In the chaos, Bouljan is killed, and Filaq's throne is safe. Filaq and Zelikman have sex. Then the two bandit-heroes, with gold in hand, embark back out onto the road to find new adventures.
Best part of story, including ending:
I really wanted to like this story. I've generally loved everything Chabon has written, and a medieval adventure paired with Chabon's artistry *should* have been incredible. At times it was fairly interesting, but Chabon got in his own way far too often, and the story was somehow both too thin and too cluttered.
Best scene in story:
The opening "fight to the death" where the villagers are conned is written from the mahout's point of view, with minimal interpretative guidance, which has the very engaging effect of conning the reader as well. Easily the best scene in the book.
Opinion about the main character:
I have a feeling that Zelikman was supposed to be the more engaging main character, but I found him a little flat and self-consciously wrought at times. Amram was a deeper and more fascinating character for me, though that might just be because we learn far less about him over the course of the story, and more is left ambiguous.