This book is something of a departure for me -- it's a mainstream novel. It's historical, but with no fantasy elements at all, and written by an up and coming Literary Author. And I picked it up because it actually sounded good in a review on All Things Considered.
From the opening few pages, it was clear that this was an author who enjoyed words and was artful in using them. His sentences are artful without being annoying, and he actually uses words I don't really know (though I can pick them up pretty well from context) more often than anybody but Gene Wolfe. It was quite entertaining at the beginning, but unfortunately it didn't quite hold to such a high level. It read very much like a fantasy novel, just without any creatures more fantastic than elephants, or practitioners of any arts more arcane than medicine. To the sort of people who wouldn't be caught dead reading a genre novel, it was probably a really eye-opening experience, but to me, it was just a fairly average-quality adventure plot. Well enough told to be enjoyable, but nothing truly amazing; good but not great. 8 out of 10.
**** PLOT SUMMARY -- SPOILERS ****
We meet Zelikman, a Frankish scholor raised by a Jewish physician, and Amram, a black Ethiopian Jew, as they are staging scam, faking a fight to collect the bets. Zelikman doesn't look threatening until he starts actually using the overgrown bloodletting tool he carries, while Amram, except for being black, appears to be Fafhrd, so Zelikman winning the fight surprises most. As they're arranging to collect their winnings and make their escape in the stables, a mahout lets it be known that he was onto them, but that's fine. And he saddles them with his charge, the son of the recently deposed Bek of Khazaria -- a little known but real Jewish empire bordering the Caspian sea back when Byzantium was starting to come down from the height of its power and Islam was starting to come into its own. This mahout manages to get himself killed, and our heroes have decided to accept responsibility of Filaq, the prince. Filaq wants to escape and extract vengeance personally, and makes a pain of himself. Adventures ensue. Filaq manages to recruit an army, mercenaries that had been her father's. Then she's revealed as a girl. It turns out that Buljan, the usurper, is a real piece of work; he invited Rus barbarians to come down and sack Muslim towns with impunity. The mercenaries (Muslims) are captured and exectued, and this is the outrage that will prove Buljan's undoing. Our heroes sneak into the palace of the Kagan, who agrees to renounce Buljan in exchange for faking his death and spiriting him away. I'm skipping a lot, but a jolly good time was had by all.