The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – P. Djèlí Clark

The Haunting of Tram Car 015The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this SO MUCH.

Not only is it delightful to return to the world of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” Clark develops the world further while he tells another story. The conversations underpinning the world about modernity, social change, gender roles, and feminism, carry forward into The Haunting of Tram Car 015 and not only advance in the background but are intrinsic to the plot. The style and technology move from Victorian Steampunk into Art Deco. I could visualize the many geometric patterns and the Art Deco style of the women’s suffrage posers while reading this story, and although it doesn’t quite go full Decopunk, the flirtation in that direction makes my heart happy. Clark turns the second wave of Egyptian Revival from the Art Deco period an actual Egyptian movement instead of a Western fashion trend. The alternate history worldbuilding is so tight and clever, I can’t say enough good about it.

As I’ve come to expect from Clark, he delivers a kick-ass story driven by kick-ass characters. Every encounter is a character study, and every character leaps off the page. Hamed and Fatma gossiping about her case from “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” over tea and cake was the perfect ending note.

More, please.

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“A Dead Djinn in Cairo” – P. Djèlí Clark

A Dead Djinn in CairoA Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I re-read “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” both to prepare for reading Clark’s new novella set in the same world, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, and because I heard Clark speak about “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” during a panel appearance at Readercon in 2018, and I realized how much I had missed, and how little credit my previous review gave the depth of the story.

After I first read this, I was caught up in the wonderfully quick pace, the witty banter of the characters, the satisfaction of the climactic fight scene, and I called this story a confection. I often compare writing to desserts, because I love both, but that review does “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” a disservice.

This novelette has more markers and symbols of colonization and the anxiety of modernity than a James Joyce story. Lush with details that are so excellently woven into the fabric of the narrative, I didn’t notice them until Clark said the story is about colonization, and I read it again. Egypt has a very long history as colonizer and colonized, which Clark pays careful attention to throughout. In this alternate history, not only is technology developed at an earlier time to give it steampunk elements, the Egyptians stave off British colonialism and impose their own colonization on neighboring Sudan. And in turn, they are all colonized by creatures of legend emerging again into the world—djinn, angels, ghuls, gods, and monsters. None of the political colonizing is described in the text—I learned of the fight between Egypt and Britain to colonize Sudan when I started looking up the history of colonialism in Egypt—and yet it is, through every minutiae of cosmopolitan Cairo in the early 20th century, and the characters we meet as they move through their re-imagined cityscape investigating the mysterious death of the titular djinn.

I recently read Clark’s novella The Black God’s Drums, which does for New Orleans what he does here for Cairo—sketch out a whole different history in a few words, a few pages; food, clothes, and the people consuming them; city streets and the people inhabiting the corners. I immediately slide into his reimagined places as though they have always been this way. I won’t overlook the complexity again.

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The Black God’s Drums – P. Djeli Clark

The Black God's DrumsThe Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am loving the explosion of speculative fiction set in New Orleans. The Black God’s Drums isn’t just speculative fiction, it’s alternate history. And on top of that, it’s steampunk. Just take all my money now.

Like Sarah Gailey in American Hippo, P. Djeli Clark takes us down the Mississippi river to the Big Easy by way of a few changes to your history textbook. Successful slave rebellions, a few alterations to the American Civil War, a dash of steampunk, and you’ve got the free city of New Orleans, an airship port straddling the tenuous relationship between the North, the South, and various island nations of the Caribbean. Clarke deftly walks us through this within the 110 pages of the novella, scattering well-placed details when they become relevant to the story instead of info-dumping all the ways this New Orleans is not the city you know at the beginning of the story. He trusts the reader to pick up what he’s putting down, and I like being treated as a smart reader.

Creeper and Ann-Marie are the best sort of mirrored characters—each carries a god, but they deal with it in opposite ways. Both are forced to reckon with these strange inhabitations in the climax of the story, which Clark wastes no time getting to. Some novellas feel like incomplete novels, but this one is exactly the right length—for the story, anyway. I would happily spend a lot more time in this version of the world. (Can we please have more stories with the nuns? They completely steal the one scene they’re in, and from that one scene, we can extrapolate half a dozen elevator pitches for other stories set in this world.) The power team of Ann-Marie and Creeper can come, too.

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The Calculating Stars – Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1)The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I adored “Lady Astronaut of Mars,” so I was very excited to see a novel about Elma’s earlier life. I nearly bought a copy of The Calculating Stars three times while circling the bookshop at Readercon but passed on it to purchase American Hippo instead (absolutely no regrets; you can read my review of how much I enjoyed American Hippo here).

I also wasn’t impressed by the quality of the materials used in the trade paperback hard copy. The cover curled and the paper felt cheap. The $18 cover price seemed too high. I know the higher price offsets the direct-to-paperback loss of hardcover sales, but I don’t like to buy chintzy books because I tend to keep them for a long time. So, when The Calculating Stars went on sale for Kindle for $2.99, I purchased immediately.

I was not disappointed by this book- it was fabulous. A League of Their Own meets Hidden Figures, The Calculating Stars is an alternate history of the 1950s and 60s space race in a time of accelerated global warming that necessitates off-world colonization, with a large and diverse cast of smart women all based on real historical people, fighting their way to the role of astronauts. In the real history of NASA’s voyages to the stars, women got men into space. Women were the mathematicians (called computers) behind the trajectories and engineering of space shuttles and lunar modules, doing the calculations by hand that early electronic computers were too slow and unreliable to do. Women also flew just about every kind of plane all over the place during WWII in the WASP program. Like women in the military today, the story that gets told is that these women didn’t go into combat, so it was never dangerous or difficult, but then and now, that’s a lot of bullshit.

Elma is a former WASP and a computer, a Doctor of Mathematics, married to a rocket engineer who is supportive and acknowledges her intelligence, talents, and ambitions. She has anxiety and struggles with whether or not to take medication and what people might think if they knew. She likes her work as a computer, but desperately wants to go to space, to the moon, to Mars. Elma is such a well-crafted character. In a brief description she sounds too perfect: smart accomplished woman with perfect marriage has one tragic flaw to overcome on her way to destroying the patriarchy and achieving her dreams! But she’s so much more complex than that, with little nuances and asides. She loses most of her family, constantly forgets about and then is reminded of her white privilege as the women of color around her suffer from racism, struggles with the lingering effects of being a girl and then a woman who moves through life outshining men and is bullied and traumatized to boost fragile male egos. She’s also Jewish, and grapples with the legacy of the Holocaust and the loss of her own family line among thousands of lost Jewish families. This story may be alternate history, but it is very grounded in its time and place. Elma does not destroy the patriarchy on her way to achieving her dreams. She eats a lot of shit, grits her teeth and smiles through it, because she knows she is building a better future.

The focus on global warming and society’s attitude toward it, is very timely. Sadly, so is the racism and sexism. Decades of advancement, and we haven’t come as far as Elma would hope. I’m looking forward to escaping into the world of the sequel, The Fated Sky, to spend some time in a hopeful fantasy of a better tomorrow.

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American Hippo – Sarah Gailey

American Hippo (River of Teeth, #1-2)American Hippo by Sarah Gailey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

OMG, HIPPOS.

Although it’s set in the deep south, the novellas and stories compiled into American Hippo are unapologetically Western. Gailey’s delightful alternate-history swamp-romp on hippo-back is a caper and an operation chock full of double-crosses, revenge, kidnapping, explosions, and romance. And hippos. Lots and lots of hippos.

After the hippos (and the human characters, they’re pretty great, too), what I appreciate most about Gailey’s storytelling is that it is character-driven, and she’s not self-indulgent with her world-building. We’re not led on unnecessary side-quests so the author can showcase all the pages and pages of elaborate thinking she did about the world she created. The story moves swiftly from act to act, drama to drama. Gailey accomplishes all the worldbuilding we need in a few paragraphs, a doling-out of select details, and a reliance on the reader to bring a cultural awareness of the genre to the table. I’ve been exposed to enough Westerns and Mark-Twain riverboat iconography that I don’t need those things described to me. And if another reader doesn’t have that exposure, it’s still not necessary to understand and enjoy the story, because the point is the characters and the story, not the boats and buildings that make up the setting. The unique element of the story is the hippos, and they are characters in their own right, rather than accessories, each a unique personality and companion to their human riders (or feral monsters providing gruesome Jaws-style horror).

After I finished reading American Hippo (such a great way to kick off 2019!), I found an essay Gailey wrote for Tor.com confessing her anxiety about her sparse worldbuilding in the face of the extreme worldbuilding some authors find satisfying and enjoyable but others find intense and overwhelming, and the fun she had making the map that appears on the inside covers of the book. I think she has nothing to worry about. I am on board for more hippos, or whoever and whatever else she wants to write about.

I hope its hippos, though. More hippos, please.

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