I only recently became aware of award-winning author P. Djeli Clark, although he has been writing sci-fi/fantasy novellas and novels for at least 5 years. Novels that involve djinn are especially interesting to me, and when a couple of different folks (including our own Emmalita) mentioned Clark within days of each other, I decided to check him out and I downloaded EVERYTHING!! These first two offerings feature not just djinn and magical entities but also Cairene investigators whose backstories and interactions will, I hope, be further developed in future novels.
A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 are set in the same universe, and it is a fascinating and supercool place. The year is 1912 and the setting is Cairo but not as we would know it. Forty years prior, a Soudanese mystic and inventor named al-Jahiz made a hole in the Kaf, which is the realm where djinn live, allowing djinn to enter the world more freely. As a result, the djinn used their magic and advanced thinking to bring all manner of machinery and technology into the world, all of it imbued with their magic. Egypt is a superpower and Cairo rivals London and Paris for its intellectual, technological, and cultural achievements. This is a world where, thanks to al-Jahiz, folks have automated carriages, airships, and air-trams that run by machinery plus magic. But it is also a world where magical creatures of all sorts, not always friendly, exist. Thus it is that in Cairo, the government (which involves a King and parliament) has created the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities to handle situations that require specialized knowledge of how to confront and manage the magical. Those who work for the Ministry are an elite force who have gone through special training so as to be able to neutralize threatening creatures.
A Dead Djinn in Cairo introduces us to a special investigator named Fatma el-Sha’arawi, a 24-year-old woman who dresses in Englishmen’s suits and carries a walking cane. Though petite, her abilities vis-a-vis the supernatural are formidable. This novella revolves around Fatma’s investigation of the death of a djinn. The situation is highly unusual, as it appears that he died by exsanguination (drained of all his blood) due to an enchantment that he may have performed upon himself. Fatma works alongside police inspector Aasim Sharif as they unravel the clues that lead to a potentially earth-shattering discovery. Along the way, the reader learns a bit about ghuls, ifrits, djinn, and even angels. Clark also gives the reader a view into the sort of underground, unofficial role that various women’s groups play in this world. Siti is one such woman, and it looks like she has potential to serve as both a collaborator and potential love interest for Fatma in the future.
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, a finalist for 2020 Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards, introduces new characters to steampunk Cairo, 1912. Agent Hamed is, like Fatma, a 24-year-old investigator with the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. Having been on the job for several years, he is now a veteran showing the ropes to newbie agent Onsi. Onsi is an interesting character; he is a Cairo native and a Copt, but his family sent him to England for schooling until he transferred back to the superior university in Cairo in order to prepare himself for work in the Ministry. Onsi is a very chatty fellow who loves to engage in long discussions of topics that really don’t interest Hamed all that much. This odd couple responds to a report of a ghost on a tram car. Superintendent Bashir of Tram Safety & Maintenance tells the agents that a ghost has taken up residence in the tram car and has attacked passengers. Given that the trams, like all tech in Cairo, run on a combination of machinery and magic, it seems that perhaps a djinn has made himself a home there, attracted to the magic it senses. Agent Hamed thinks this case can be handled fairly easily by engaging the services of one of their own djinn to talk to the one on the tram car and help the interloper find a better place to take up residence. The problem is the cost. Djinn don’t work for free (they even have a union) and they don’t work cheap. Bashir makes it clear that his office cannot afford the cost and then pulls out a directive showing that he doesn’t have to anyway. The Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, technically, has to handle this situation as it is a matter of public safety. This puts Hamed and Onsi in a tight spot. If they spend this money on behalf of the Ministry, then they will end up at “desk duty” for a long time afterward. Over lunch at a cafe, as they discuss their dilemma, their highly unusual server, Abla (aka Siti), noses in and offers them some good advice. Rather than hire an expensive djinn, engage the services of someone who can perform the ritual known as “Zar.” This is an unorthodox approach as the Ministry views “Zar” as something like folk medicine and beneath them. Yet, it would be far less expensive and could perhaps work. Following Abla/Siti’s advice, the two agents contact Sheikha Nadiyaa. Their meeting with her is full of fascinating information, such as that there are djinn who can assume both male and female form, and it is possible for the robots known as “boilerplate eunuchs” to actually think for themselves.
The “Zar” leads to the revelation that Hamed and Onsi are dealing with something other than a djinn, and once they discover what it is and how it arrived in Cairo, they still have to figure out how to deal with it. Clark does a great job of linking this story to the women’s rights movement in Cairo. We learn at the start of the story that the parliament is preparing to vote on women’s suffrage, that women’s groups have been organizing and fighting for this right for decades, and that in this Egypt, there is overwhelming support for the idea thinking beings — including women, djinn, and “liberated machines” — should not be enslaved.
The resolution to the haunting of the tram car is quite thrilling and shows agents Hamed and Onsi at their very best. Each man has talents that are important to cracking the case and saving the city from unimaginable horror. Clark has a third novel set in this universe due out this year and I can’t wait to read it. He has created many truly interesting characters in a world full of magic and variety. Count me as one of the enchanted.