It is 1912, a historic year for Egypt at the beginning of this novella, in which, in a few days’ time it will be decided whether women can vote, and the city of Cairo is abuzz with the energy of potential change. It is a thoroughly modern city of airships, trams and automatons, and Egypt a world power, having ditched the British and the French after the madman-genius al-Jahiz opened the doors to the world of magic forty years ago.
Everything about this lights up the switchboard in my brain.
Agent Hamed (a little stiff, a little world-weary) and Agent Onsi (eager and interested in everything) of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities must investigate a seemingly routine haunting, navigating a city practically vibrating with female vigour as suffrage demonstrations take to the streets, and all the while keeping a weather eye on their limited budget.
Both agents are charming in their own way. Hamed is modern and traditional in about equal measure, and what I can only describe as ‘old-headed’. The keen and chatty Onsi balances him out perfectly. There is a lovely vein of humour that runs around and through their investigation as the two approach things from their own very different perspectives. I particularly liked Onsi’s contribution in trying to gain Sheikha Nadiya’s services, opening up a whole philosophical can of worms with his suggestion that trams are thinking beings.
Of course the haunting turns out to be more complicated than originally suspected. And the spirit is all kinds of awesome that I can’t say anything about without spoiling things.
And I love that every step of the way it is a woman that is able to help with another piece of the puzzle. It is Abla, the waitress working at Hamed’s favourite restaurant who leads them to the Sheikha first, and when Nadiyah and her women reveal something about the nature of the ‘ghost’ aboard tram car 015, it is Abla again who leads them to Madaam Mariam, the doll seller, for more information. Not to mention Jizzu the djinn with a dual nature and Fahima the sentient boilerplate eunuch. And the moment at Ramses Station at the end, when the woman and her baby were in danger, made my heart soar.
Finally, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention the food. Oh my, the food! Descriptions of food are always going to get my attention and I think food is a big way in which the reader can be drawn into the world of a story. I’d still have enjoyed this story without it, but with the food, I love it. “Roasted meats, salted fish, lentils, and stewed okra” are words to conjure with, as is the “tasty bread called kabed for dessert, which they ate with milk and honey”. I love that food and drink are a part of hospitality, that “rose-coloured” tea is offered, along with sweets like the cloves and cinnamon flavoured sudjukh which starts the story off. And most of all I love that food brings people together, as in the epilogue, where basbousa, a “sweet cake that tasted faintly of oranges”, is shared along with stories.
Elegantly structured and beautifully written, I’m so happy that this was my first P Djèlí Clark story. I’m even happier that there will be a novel set in this world when A Master of Djinn is published later this year. I hope Hamed and Onsi will make an appearance. I hope Abla from the restaurant, and the Ministry Librarian will too. If the author can create such a warm and vibrant world and say so much about our own in such a short space, just imagine what he’ll do with a whole novel’s span of words. I can’t wait!
N.B. For those that haven’t already read it, the epilogue of Tram Car 015 leads very nicely on to a reading of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo”, the first story set in Clark’s fabulous Cairo, which can be found over at Tor.com here. If I enjoyed Hamed and Onsi’s company, I loved Fatma’s!