Saturday, June 20, 2009


For over a decade, the science fiction (or as it’s now called, sci-fi/fantasy) genre has mostly left me cold. I think that I just may have read enough fantasy epics and space war sagas for one lifetime. I keep trawling for writers who can get my imagination soaring, and it’s a difficult task. So is there a writer who can get me buying his books as soon as I can?

Yes. Let me tell you about Tahir Shah, a writer who puts the entire field of imaginative fiction to shame.

And he doesn’t even write fiction. His books are shelved in the Travel section of most bookstores. Yet, they are more than mere travelogs.

Doris Lessing called him a "master of surreal traveling." He’s also been called "a cross between Indiana Jones and Woody Allen." That and the fact that his books read like novels and have structures that only a master storyteller can accomplish, make them works that transcend artificial marketing categories.

The first book of his to snag me was Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The cover photo of an Indian godman dressed as the goddess Kali caught my eye. Then there was the Lessing "surreal traveling" quote. The book blew away all my expectations. This true tale of studying magic under a master of the art in Calcutta, then journeying to encounter working godmen, is better than several shelves of contemporary fantasy novels. It proves that the world is still full of wonder and danger, and that adventure is still possible.

Next I read Trail of Feathers. I was hooked from the beginning by a shrunken head auction in London. It goes on to be a quest inspired by theories of ancient birdmen who used pyramids for launching platforms. South America was never so exotic – chock full of ghosts, llama fetus medicine, river-rodent cuisine, man-eating mermaids, and hallucinogenic drugs that suggest that the birdmen of old may have flown without machinery.

By the time The Caliph’s House came out, I was a full-blown addict. The book is a post-9/11 masterpiece. Shah buys a house in Casablanca because London seems too safe. He encounters terrorism, gangsters, Islamic customs, and jinns. The publisher compares it to A Year in Province, but it’s really a modern day Arabian Nights-style Amityville Horror/Exorcist. I’m serious – the book ends with him hiring Moroccan exorcists. He concluded that "a life not filled with severe learning curves was no life at all."

I read In Arabian Nights as soon as I could buy it. Still living in the Caliph’s House in Casablanca, Shah delves deeper into the complex stew of cultures around him. With a copy of Sir Richard Burton’s original translation of the Arabian Nights, he explores the world or traditional storytelling, ingeniously woven in with flashbacks of his own life, including being captured and tortured in Pakistan. Few novels are so well constructed. I was amazed and delighted. Again.

Anxiously, I wait, with a spirit of adventure, a sense of humor, and faith in the bizarre.

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