In the People’s Republic, all forms of bondage have been done away with. No man or woman may hold another as property. Neither do we allow sentient tram cars or machine-men made in our likeness to toil to our whims while we profit from their labors.
**There are minor spoilers in the “Content Warnings” and “Review” portions of this post**
Published: February, 2019
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Urban Fantasy, Science-Fiction, Alternate Universe
Representation: People of Colour (POC), Intersex (LGBT+), Women’s Rights Activism (Feminism)
Content Warning: Colonialism, physical (and magical) violence
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 returns to the alternate Cairo of Clark’s short fiction, where humans live and work alongside otherworldly beings; the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities handles the issues that can arise between the magical and the mundane. Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr shows his new partner Agent Onsi the ropes of investigation when they are called to subdue a dangerous, possessed tram car. What starts off as a simple matter of exorcism, however, becomes more complicated as the origins of the demon inside are revealed.
— taken from Goodreads
There is no doubt about it: P. Djèlí Clark does a phenomenal job in writing alternate universes. The picture of fantastical Cairo he painted in this book was alluring, and it made us want more (A Dead Djinn in Cairo, here we come).
Abarna isn’t usually a big fan of novellas; while they tend to have fascinating premises, she tends to be underwhelmed by stories falling flat, two-dimensional characters and/or nonexistent world-building. To be fair, it’s not like you have many pages to convey all of the things that you want to. But P. Djèlí Clark is a master in short stories, and this is easy to see if you pick up any one of his novellas (review for The Black God’s Drums, coming soon). The world-building was absolutely astounding, and you could really see yourself in this world, surrounded by the magic and fantastical beings, along with seemingly impossible technological advances. You could lose yourself in it. The characters are fully formed and complex, with fearless characters and focus political views. The novella takes place in the uprising of the suffragette movement, where women are rallying for equal rights in Cairo, lending to the strong, tenacious female characters bold statements in a society where men and women are not equal.
That’s the other thing about this book: Clark seemingly expresses his political interests through the setting. Cairo was decolonized by djinn. Women are fighting for equal rights, not just for humans, but for “machine-men,” which are essentially robots ranging from semi-sentient to fully sentient. It’s incredible, really, especially as one of the characters contends that feminist movements are so often focused on one particular group of people: straight, white, cis, middle class women. Many movements tend to overlook intersectional considerations, despite the fact that many women of colour or queer folks face difficulties that the equal rights movement could help to correct. It was incredibly validating to read this acknowledgement about feminism, and read as this book’s suffragette movement pole vaults over those problems (although the book doesn’t focus wholly on the movement, so there is a lot that isn’t seen).
The protagonist, Agent Hamed Nasr, is a fairly narrow-minded, “progressive” detective focused on his career, with a tendency to make admittedly problematic assumptions about people (more specifically, women and non-human folks). But on more than one occasion, the assumptions he made were rambunctiously overturned, and he was rather humble about taking these things into stride. His partner, Agent Onsi, is intelligent, self-indulgent, and charming, offering the perfect counter-balanced to Hamed’s intensity. You meet a collection of fun female characters including an intersex djinn, and it was fun seeing the world through the protagonist’s narrow gaze and watching it widen as the book went on.
And these are all our ravings without even talking about the plot. As suggested in the summary, Agents Hamed and Onsi are set upon a case involving a haunting in a city tram car. Of course, as all interesting stories go, it does not go as planned. The situation quickly grows more complex, requiring more elaborate schemes to tackle the problem. It’s entertaining to watch the story unfold and learn more of the mystical setting throughout. By the end of it all, the protagonist and his endearing side-kick are put into a wonderfully unique situation that many men would evade at whatever cost. The climax of the novel was impactful in two ways: of course, with the solution of the problem (i.e. the actual haunting of tram car 015); but also with the suffragette movement coming to a head, as the vote for equal rights at parliament takes place. It was an incredibly satisfying, cathartic ending.
Suffice it to say, Clark flawlessly accomplished the daunting feat of telling a full story and making sociopolitical statements within the limited confines of a novella.