Review: THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

Book Reviews

I don’t have the patience to write much of an intro for this post because I just want to straight up say this book is incredible! I don’t give five star ratings lightly (in fact the only other books I’ve given five stars to recently are Fonda Lee’s The Green Bone Saga books – that’s it) but THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 is undoubtedly worthy of that accolade. A book that combines mystery, folklore and tradition with unionised djinn, the Egyptian suffragette movement and national liberation struggles to produce a fantastically engaging personal story of colourful characters and wonderfully intelligent world building.



THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 is set in the same universe as the short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo and follows Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr and his rookie partner Agent Onsi as they investigate the haunting of a magically-powered tram car in an alternative turn-of-the-20th-century steampunk Cairo. What makes it an ‘alternative’ Cairo you might ask? Well, in Clark’s world the barriers between worlds have been broken down by a now infamous scientist/sorceror (the distinction is hard to make anymore), allowing djinn to cross over and populate our dimension. The power of the djinn has not only enabled Egypt to kick the British colonial authorities out of the country, but also catapulted Egypt into the position of a global power. That, and allowed them to construct a city-wide transportation system of magically-powered trams, one of which has become inconveniently haunted.

P. Djèlí Clark has this remarkable novella-writing talent where he’s able to tell such engaging stories of individuals and their personal micro-level tales that are set against incredibly rich and vibrant social and political backdrops. And these two things aren’t just separate segments that he’s clumsily mashed together to form an awkward and misshapen whole; they’re very skilfully interconnected so that the one is beautifully woven into the other, until they become entirely intertwined and impossible to untangle, because each reinforces the other. These are the kinds of things that most writers take several books and thousands of pages to achieve, yet Clark manages to inject his stories with this same level of complexity through razor-sharp language and dialogue, often having single phrases and sentences do the work of entire chapters. One of my favourite parts of the book is one very quick bit of dialogue; when our sleuthing protagonists meet a gender-fluid djinn who unexpectedly changes gender in their presence. Agent Onsi simply says “I’ve heard of this class of djinn. I wonder how they prefer to be addressed? Still remarkably beautiful!” This one piece of dialogue does so much to highlight how gender is a social construct that some djinn have a very different concept of. Just one example of the sheer amount of work Clark’s incisive writing does.

What we see in THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 is the birth of the Egyptian suffragette movement, taking place in an Egypt which is one of the world’s foremost modernising powers. And yet, even though the yoke of colonial oppression has been thrown off, Clark doesn’t idealise the Egyptian society that emerges; there are still social struggles to be waged which are, in themselves, complex and contradictory. Among the Egyptian suffragettes are urban women, housewives and labourers alongside rural peasants and a burgeoning middle class. It’s clear in how Clark writes about his fictional social movements that he has a deep understanding of how social contradictions drive political and economic change and he applies this to his fiction so that his world is complex and deep-rooted, despite this story being so short. This applies just as much to his individual characters as well. For example, Agent Hamed al-Nasr sees himself as a thoroughly modern man who supports women’s right to vote, and yet there are moments of unconscious and ingrained sexism that remain embedded in how he thinks about the world. It doesn’t make him a bad person, but it does give him a level of complexity to his character that feels very real. Also none of that is ever explicitly pointed out. Clark absolutely trusts his readers to grasp the implications of his characters thoughts and actions. One of my pet peeves in fiction is when writers make fantastic allusions to a character’s personality or beliefs by showing us how they behave or think in particular situations and then ruin it all by feeling the need to directly explain the implications. It betrays a lack of trust in the intelligence of their readers and Clark clearly trusts his readers to understand his characters and the world they live in.

I’ve talked a lot about just how intelligent the writing is, but the story itself is also just incredibly engaging. It’s captivating, it’s entertaining, it’s also funny and, as the mystery reaches its peak, things get a bit scary and disturbing. Honestly, this is just one of the best books I’ve ever read and I’ve said this a lot recently, but P. Djèlí Clark has cemented himself as one of the smartest and most talented writers out there right now and is certainly a new favourite of mine.


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Weekly Reading Update 17/06/2020

Updates

Welcome to Wednesday bookwyrms. I didn’t have a weekly update last week cos I’d been moving house, so honestly just hadn’t got much reading done. I’m on a novella-reading binge at the moment though and can I just say how happy I am that the novella is is making a comeback. Especially in genre fiction, and fantasy specifically, that has long been associated with the ‘doorstopper’ novel. I Love a good thousand-pager as much as anyone, but there’s something beautiful and incredibly skilful about the craft of a good novella, where tonnes of character and world building can be packed into such a small package. Here’s a selection of the novellas I’ve got on my radar at the mo.



Recently Finished: THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
I’m on a bit of a P. Djèlí Clark kick at the moment. After reading his short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo I thought I potentially had a new favourite author on my hands. So I quickly moved on to his Haitian sky pirate novella The Black God’s Drums and thought “Yep, this guy is incredible” and after THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 I can confidently say P. Djèlí Clark is one of the smartest, most engaging authors out there right now and is undoubtedly a master of the novella. This story takes place in the same universe as A Dead Djinn in Cairo and follows Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr as he tries to solve the mystery of the haunting of a tram car, along the way encountering the Egyptian suffragette movement and becoming acquainted with a group of magic-wielding women deeply knowledgeable about the folklore of multicultural Cairo.

Currently Reading: ON A RED STATION, DRIFTING by Aliette De Bodard
I’ve missed science fiction. Even though Wyrd & Wonder ended a few weeks ago I’ve still been reading mostly fantasy and non-fiction, and my beloved sci-fi remains abandoned by the wayside. I technically haven’t started this yet as I’ve literally just closed the final pages of Tram Car 015 ten minutes ago, but thought it was about time I sated my science fiction craving. ON A RED STATION, DRIFTING is the first novella in Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya Universe, which also incldudes The Citadel of Weeping Pearls and The Tea Master and the Detective, the latter of which I’ve already read and loved. ON A RED STATION, DRIFTING is the story of Station Mistress Quyen and Honoured Ancestress, an AI born of a human womb, as they struggle to keep their loved ones safe amidst a brewing war in the Dai Vet Empire.

Next Read: RING SHOUT by P. Djèlí Clark
No surprise by now that I’ll be reading another P. Djèlí Clark novella next. RING SHOUT sounds incredible, and is particularly pertinent given the mass uprising against racist violence in the US right now. It sets up D. W. Griffith (a real life figure who directed a vile, racist film called The Birth of a Nation in 1915) as a sorceror whose film was a spell that drew from the darkest thoughts and wishes at the heart of American society. Luckily, Maryse Boudreaux has a magic sword. When she’s not running bootleg whiskey through Prohibition Georgia, she’s fighting monsters she calls “Ku Kluxes.” She’s damn good at it too, but to confront this ongoing evil she must journey between worlds to face nightmares made flesh – and her own demons. Together with a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter, Maryse sets out to save a world from the hate that would consume it. Sounds absolutely amazing.


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Review: THE BLACK GOD’S DRUMS by P. Djèlí Clark

Book Reviews

Damn, P. Djèlí Clark is quickly becoming one of my favourite writers. I was introduced to his fiction through the short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo and knew that if his other stuff was that good then I had a new auto-buy author. THE BLACK GOD’S DRUMS was even better than Dead Djinn. Possibly because, while still a short book (a novella clocking in at 112 pages) there was more room for character to blossom and the world of his late 19th century alt-New Orleans to come alive. And what a world it is. Haitian sky pirates! A street urchin harnessing the power of a storm god! Nuns with gas grenades! All that stuff is packed into this short, punchy book with so much skill and crisp succinctness I was left gasping for breath by the end.



But hold up, hold up, I’m getting ahead of myself. What’s the story even about? Well there’s no messing about and not a word wasted; we’re thrown straight into the story when Creeper, our streetwise pickpocket protagonist overhears a conversation about a kidnapped Haitian scientist and a powerful weapon he calls ‘The Black God’s Drums’. Sick of her grounded life on the streets of New Orleans, Creeper plans to sell this information to the captain of the smuggler airship Midnight Robber in return for passage and a new life soaring the skies of the Eastern Seaboard and Caribbean Free Islands. She’s consequently thrown into a conflict she never saw coming, involving a bawdy multicultural brothel, aforementioned politically-astute nuns with gas grenades and a splinter group of Confederate terrorists. Not to mention the premonitions and ever-rumbling impulses of Oya, the Yoruba orisha god residing within Creeper, at times granting her divine powers to further her own aims.

Phew! That’s a whole lot of stuff happening in a 112 page novella! And yet it’s perfect, the exact length it needs to be to tell the story Clark wanted to tell. And the world he manages to bring to life in such a short book is nothing short of remarkable. I’ve never been to New Orleans or experienced Mardi Gras, but having read THE BLACK GOD’S DRUMS I can claim the next best thing, cos this colourful festival and it carousing revellers danced across the stage of my mind like I was watching it in high definition. Clark has a way with language that makes the words just burst out of the page, and he doesn’t need pages and pages of description to do it. His prose is just incisive, cutting through the nonsense to let the book’s imagery take over your imagination.

But this is Mardi Gras in a New Orleans and a world we wouldn’t recognise. I mean for one, it’s steampunk, so there’s airships dominating the skies and giant steam-powered insectoid constructs parading through the streets, but it’s also a political landscape altogether different from the post-Civil War South of real world history. I’m not going to talk about the specifics in any detail, because I think it just deserves to be experienced in the telling, but suffice to say it takes the real life history of the Haitian Revolution and amps that shit up. And to really appreciate this story I think it’s necessary to talk about the historic dominance of Eurocentric stories in fantasy, stories that have often demonised and erased people of colour, because P. Djèlí Clark has said it’s his goal as a writer to write stories that specifically centre people of colour in all their nuance, not just as Orientalist caricatures viewed through a white lens. He’s actually written a fantastic three-part series of articles about this that I honestly can’t recommend highly enough. They’re very insightful and practically useful for people who want to break out of the cycle of Eurocentrism that has dominated genre fiction for so long and is now, thankfully, starting to change. I’ll link the articles at the bottom and if you have a spare half hour I do encourage you check them out.

THE BLACK GOD’S DRUMS is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I’m intending on moving straight on to another P. Djèlí Clark novella, The Haunting of Tramcar 015, almost immediately. It takes place in the same setting as A Dead Djinn in Cairo and I’m so excited to get more of that setting. I also have an ARC of his newest book Ring Shout that I’m beyond excited about too. Damn, I just want to read everything P. Djèlí Clark has ever written! Simply put, he is fucking awesome.


Fantasy’s Othering Fetish, a series of articles examining the Eurocentric dominance and Orientalist lens of western fantasy. They’re quite short and quick reads, while also being very engaging and insightful.

Part One.
Part Two.
Part Three


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Review: A DEAD DJINN IN CAIRO by P. Djèlí Clark

Book Reviews

Wow. I really need to read more P. Djèlí Clark! Picture the scene. It’s Cairo, 1912. The pungent aroma of the spice markets wafts through the evening air amid the hustle and bustle of the al-Gezira district. Aerial trams transport their passengers to and from the bazaars and coffee shops of the city. And an investigator from the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities finds the body of a dead djinn.



A DEAD DJINN IN CAIRO is a tantalisingly short book that follows Fatma, an investigator of this fascinatingly-titled ministry, as she follows the leads to solve the mystery of the deceased djinn. It’s a simple premise, a good old-fashioned mystery, except you may have noticed a few odd things about the alternate Cairo P. Djèlí Clark has dreamed up here. Other-worldly beings are a common fact of existence in a world where the fabric of reality between worlds has been haphazardly torn asunder and djinn, ghuls and even beings calling themselves ‘angels’ live and kill amidst the everyday people of early 20th century Egypt.

The setting is the real star of this short book and Djèlí Clark brings it to life with such wonderfully evocative prose that really highlights the richness of his imagination. I love love love it when writers are able to make a scene render itself in such vivid technicolour in your head without distracting from the story; the scenes in this book really pop and you can almost feel yourself standing in the room with Fatma as she investigates ancient leather-bound tomes, intricate sigils and ominous oil paintings. I swear I could hear the night vendors hawking their wares as she made her way through the bazaar, surrounded by the smell of peppery spices, baked bread and sweet oils. It was almost enough to overwhelm the senses. It reminded me of other writers like Aliette de Bodard and Nghi Vo, who have a similar talent for evocative storytelling that fully immerses you in the story in books like In The Vanishers Palace and The Empress of Salt and Fortune.

There’s glimpses of some great characters too. Fatma is witty, intelligent and determined not to let the remnants of the old, somewhat sexist attitudes of previous generations stifle her ambition and ability. And she rocks a very stylish suit. We get flashes of some other characters, such as the old-fashioned Inspector Aasim Sharif, who Fatma has a cordial working relationship with but butts heads on some cultural issues not in tune with the ‘modern’ Cairo. The Maker, an ‘angel’ in the process of constructing a strange and ground-breaking clock. And Siti, a street assassin linked to the underground House of the Lady of Stars. I know this is a work of short fiction, but I really would have loved this to be a longer book, one where we could get to know this cast of characters in more depth, find out where they come from and what makes them tick. It’s a great story but I felt it was over too quick and is done somewhat of an injustice by zooming through the plot so quickly. Though if the only bad thing I’ve got to say about a story is “there wasn’t enough of it” then I think that still qualifies as a compliment.

As a first foray into the writing of P. Djèlí Clark, you really can’t go wrong with A DEAD DJINN IN CAIRO. A delightful, short read that has me clamouring for more.


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Review: PIMP MY AIRSHIP by Maurice Broaddus

Book Reviews

Pimp. My. Airship. What a title. As someone with very little steampunk reading hours under my belt this was a book I was super excited to read, especially after how much I loved some of the other books put out by Apex, like SNOW OVER UTOPIA, COIL and ROSEWATER (originally published by small press Apex before being picked up by Orbit – lil piece of trivia for ya there). I didn’t fully know what to expect from PIMP MY AIRSHIP, but I was definitely along for the ride.



It tells the story of a chiba-smoking spoken word poet called Sleepy, who inadvertently becomes the face of a revolution when his performance theatre is raided by the authoritarian Indianapolis cops. Taken under the wing of a professional revolutionary known as (120 Degrees of) Knowledge Allah, the two of them soon find themselves on the run from one end of a retro-fitted Indianapolis to the other, in a desperate attempt to elude the powers that be. Meanwhile, young heiress Sophine Jefferson becomes embroiled in the shady world of corrupt politicians and racist businessmen who run the city, putting her on a collision course with the path of Sleepy, Knowledge Allah and the fomenting revolution.

I’ll start with the good stuff, ’cause there’s a bunch of stuff I thought was *chef’s kiss* about this book. Pimp My Airship really excels on the macro level – themes and world building. It’s a book that brazenly goes to town on the status quo, shining a bright light on the cockroaches of systemic racism, police brutality and the exploitative nature inherent in industrial capitalism. Broaddus does a great job at weaving these themes into the story and showing how all these things are part of a broader and interconnected web of systemic oppression; in Broaddus’ book the primary function of the state is to protect the interests of the wealthy and protect private property, while the City Ordained Pinkertons (COPs) exists as a supposedly neutral force that in reality acts as the violent enforcers of capital and privatised prisons exploit their overwhelmingly black inmate population for free labour. Sound familiar? Yeah.

The broad world building is cool too. Each chapter is introduced with snippets of reports from the corporate press outlets ironically called Vox Populi and Vox Dei, which give us some background context to the kind of world Sleepy, Knowledge Allah and Sophine exist in. They’re propaganda outlets which go out of their way to perform the kind of mental gymnastics often displayed in our own corporate media institutions that variously boost the voices of the powerful, justify police violence and attempt to paint white people as the ‘real victims’ of racism. One of my favourite parts of the book is the section about The Knights of the White Camelia, a real life organisation of mainly upper class white men who occupied powerful positions in government and business in the 19th century. Even though they’re the ones getting rich exploiting people in the fields and factories, sentencing people in the courthouses and pulling the levers of power in government, they see themselves as the real victims of working class and black exploitation when the oppressed make any attempt to resist. After all, when you’re blind to your own privilege, any attempt to level the playing field feels like oppression. This is handled very well in the book, showing how the powerful view the status quo as the natural order of things and any attempt to level the scales as dangerous radicalism.

Unfortunately this method of world building at times felt much too info dumpy for my tastes. These little media snippets are interesting in and of themselves and do give us as readers some wider context about the world, but too often they weren’t directly relevant to the story being told. This stuff always feels more natural and relevant to me when it’s weaved into the narrative, if the characters see it in action or speak to someone who talks about it. I’d rather not be simply told something is the case, but see it crop up as part of the story.

This is where the book is weaker in my opinion – at the micro level of character. This is very much a plot-driven story and for the first three quarters of the book the characters have very little agency. Instead they’re helplessly carried along on a wave of events happening to them and I struggled to identify any goals or motivations they were working towards, beyond simply escaping the bad things being done to them. Even then, they never seem to have any plan to get themselves out of danger, and instead are reliant on the unexpected actions of others to get them out of a tight spot. I mean obviously YMMV on this, but I’m more engaged by characters who do stuff, and it’s their actions that create drama and tension and drive the story forward by their consequences. So even though lots of stuff was happening and danger was never far away, I didn’t get a great sense of narrative tension because Sleepy and Knowledge Allah didn’t really have any goals for most of the book. Sophine was more interesting. She has plans for her life that go very awry and she makes decisions that drastically alter the course of her life; I felt like she had much more agency and a direct effect on the world around her than Sleepy and Knowledge Allah ever did, so this was a plus point in the story.

So yeah, PIMP MY AIRSHIP was a bit of a mixed bag for me; great at the broad strokes stuff, a bit weaker when you zoom in and a method of storytelling I personally just don’t have a taste for. Overall I was a bit disappointed it didn’t reach the potential it clearly has, but there are definitely things to love about it and I still think it’s definitely worth a read for those aspects.


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