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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