The Haunting of Tram Car 015
+ A Dead Djinn in Cairo
by P. Djèlí Clark
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 was released today, the link being for the paperback edition. I got the e-book, which actually downloaded to my Kindle a little after 11pm last night, and I read almost half of it then, finishing it this morning. It's a novella, a quick and enjoyable read, full of fascinating characters and situations. It's a combination of alternate history, steampunk, and mythological fantasy elements. Set in Cairo in 1912, a thriving cosmopolitan city in a country now independent, having defeated the British at the Battle of Tel El Kebir in 1882. About forty years prior to that, a mystic known as Al-Jahiz had opened a portal to the Kaf, the land of spirits and demons. It is rumored that he was in truth the famous personage from 9th Century Iraq, who had time traveled into the future. Now the world is filled with djinn, Ifrit, and various other minor or major spirits, even some who identify as angels. Also, ancient gods are once again worshipped, and while some rituals are not sanctioned by Egypt, religious tolerance laws have been enacted.
The Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities has been established, its agents tasked with investigating crimes committed by any of these ethereal spirits. The case before Agents Hamed Nasr and his new partner Onsi Youssef is an apparent haunting of a tram car. The tall building in the cover image is Ramses Station, central hub for the tram car fleet. The tram car system itself had at least partially been designed by a djinn, which leads the agents to at first suspect another djinn as the guilty party in the attack on a woman passenger. A ghostly, smoke-like being is seen lurking in the gear mechanism in the roof of the car, but their efforts to identify it, then exorcize it, fails. Instead, they are forcefully expelled from the car by an unseen force. They believe it will take the powers of a major djinn to help them, but the superintendent of the transit system balks at that expense, saying it should be the duty and expense of the Ministry to deal with matters of this nature. Thus the agents have to figure out how to solve the case within the limited Ministry budget.
I won't detail any more about the case, either their other failed attempts, certainly not their success. All of that is interesting, but so is everything else about the city and its inhabitants. Clark's prose is so visually expressive, you can almost see the women in their brightly colored gallabyas, the agents' red tarboosh, even hear and smell the teeming markets. One source I checked showed the 1912 Cairo population in our world was less than 700 thousand, but it's nearly 3 million in this story. It's an amalgamation of many different cultures and religions, with immigrants from other African nations, and others across the Middle East. I'm not sure of Hamed's religious beliefs, whether he is devout in any faith, but if so probably either Sunni or Sufi Muslim. Onsi is Coptic Christian. There is no conflict between them on that matter, only mutual respect. The only thing Hamed has against his partner is his exuberant spirit and seemingly endless knowledge of all the mystic texts they might have to consult. Everywhere else around the city it is much the same, modern urban customs mixing with more traditional ones. The political climate is also in a progressive mode, with women on the cusp of gaining voting rights, which actually plays into the eventual completion of the case. It's a fully realized alternate world, endlessly fascinating, remarkably detailed in such a short story. This is highly recommended, and I hope for many more stories in this sequence in the years to come.
I haven't read that many alternate histories, but the ones I have enjoyed have prompted me to search out people and places mentioned, as well as the historical events that have been altered. For this story, those include the aforementioned Al-Jahiz, one of the first proponents of the theory of evolution, a millennium before Charles Darwin or Alfred Russel Wallace. Another was that 1882 battle, in which a combined force of British and French troops defeated the Egyptians, assuring control of the Suez Canal. Another Persian scholar was also mentioned, al-Qazwiri of the 13th Century, who had written a book Onsi thinks might have information they need. I don't know if "Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing" has ever been translated into English, but if not I'll have to be satisfied with some of its illustrations found on this page.
Also highly recommended is A Dead Djinn in Cairo, a novelette from 2016, the first story set in this milieu. That link takes you to tor.com, where it is still available to read for free. It is also a Kindle single for just 99¢, or free again (not sure for how long though) in Some of the Best from Tor.com, 2016. If you have a Nook, those offers are matched at Barnes & Noble, and I'm sure they're the same for Kobo or other e-readers. The only thing that disappointed me about The Haunting of Tram Car 015 was that the protagonist from this story, Ministry Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi, was only mentioned in passing mid-way, with just a very brief appearance in the epilogue. In that scene, it is apparent she is dying to tell someone about this case, which the Ministry had sealed due to its sensitive nature.
Again, I won't detail the plot, only mention that those supposed angels are featured. However, any time that is mentioned Fatma retorts, "They're not really angels, you know." Maybe not, but they seem to have extraordinary powers, and very nearly cause a major shift in the human/spirit dynamic. Fatma saves the day though, and I dearly hope she is featured in another story, and not just a cameo appearance either. I'm not sure if she's the only female Ministry agent, but certainly one of the few, and also the youngest to ever graduate from the Academy. She's a bit eccentric in her demeanor and appearance, eschewing the Ministry uniform for tailored English men's suits, with a bowler instead of a tarboosh. This is probably just half as long as Tram Car, but also very detailed in expository details in such a short package. I loved it.
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