Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, both from Random House. Currently, he is the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University and can be reached on the web at www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.
I know this is heresy, but I’m going to recommend a book that was published this year. (If it helps, the story itself is centuries old.) Of all the books I’ve read this year, regardless of publication date, genre, or form, The Adventures of Amir Hamza is the best. What’s more, I haven’t even finished it yet.
But it’s so, so good. Kind of like a thinking man’s, adults-only, Islamic Harry Potter. (The original Urdu text, born out of oral narratives that had been circulated for hundreds of years, appeared in the late 19th century, but English translations have always been censored.) Amir Hamza was the prophet Muhammad’s uncle and he got into all kinds of cool trouble. Hamza’s soulmate is the daughter of the Persian emperor, but there’s a chasm of conflict keeping them apart – Frodo had it easy – and so the book follows, in utterly readable and downright addictive prose, Hamza’s struggle to return to her. Did I mention that he rides a winged demon-steed? That his posse consists of a wickedly cool wizard (thinking man’s Gandolf) and a funny trickster partner (thinking man’s Sancho Panza)? That he has to fight an honest-to-God demon? That his sons turn against him? That, in service of getting back to his one true love, he seduces a good many women? It’s a terrifically good and captivating story, bawdy and violent and occasionally poignant and often funny, and it reads just as well as a long odyssey as it does individual short stories. Speaking of, I need to get back to the book: We’re just about to rout Muhlil Sagsar and Malik Ajrook!