REVIEW: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
Cairo, 1912: The case started as a simple one for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities — handling a possessed tram car.
Soon, however, Agent Hamed Nasr and his new partner Agent Onsi Youssef are exposed to a new side of Cairo stirring with suffragettes, secret societies, and sentient automatons in a race against time to protect the city from an encroaching danger that crosses the line between the magical and the mundane.
Dear Mr. Clark,
I can easily see why this novella was a finalist for so many awards last year. It’s wild, funny, and thought provoking view of an alternate history Egypt in which a few decades ago, a genius – or madman, depending on how you view things – figured out how to puncture the veil that separated humanity from the world of djinn. After that, magic flooded the world and things haven’t been the same ever since.
Agent Hamed and his new partner, recently graduated Agent Onsi, are in the office of a functionary of Cairo’s tram safety and maintenance division. One of their trams is apparently haunted and Superintendent Bashir wants them, as agents of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, to do something about it. They soon realize that this djinn is beyond anything they’ve encountered before. Stumped for a way to deal with it, they arrive at a Nubian restaurant where their waitress, a striking woman with an attitude to match, offers a suggestion.
Taking her up on it, for it’s a good one Hamed believes, they’re thrown into one of the headquarters of the Egyptian Feminist Sisterhood (Office #3) which is hard at work to drum up support for the approaching vote that will determine if Egyptian women gain that same right. But the woman they’re seeking conducts Zar ceremonies in which she seeks to discover what the djinns, who are causing trouble with women, want and how to reconcile them both. She is not, she sniffs, an exorcist.
Agent Onsi might have slightly annoyed Hamed with his vibrant enthusiasm and English college education but Hamed admits that Onsi’s verbal gymnastics that gain the woman’s grudging acceptance of their request are impressive – even if Onsi might have accidentally opened a can of worms about the possible view that boilerplate eunuchs are subjected to slavery. That, however, is a worry for another day.
The Zar ceremony was impressive but alas, not what was needed. It did give some clues as to what Hamed and Onsi are really facing at which point, Alba, the Nubian waitress comes through again. Now they’ve got a plan but can they and Cairo’s woman survive it?
From the opening chapter in which Hamed and Onsi confront whatever it is that’s in the tram, I was caught up in What Would Happen Next.
Hamed listened stupefied as the man rattled off a series of violations. He wasn’t even certain when some of those had been put on the books.
“…and given the aforementioned charges,” Onsi continued, “you are hereby instructed to vacate these premises and return to your place of origin, or, barring that, to accompany us to the Ministry for further questioning.” Finishing, he turned with a satisfied nod.
Rookies, Hamed grumbled quietly. Before he could respond, a low moaning sounded in the car. There was little doubt where it came from, as the gray smoke had stopped its slithering and gone still.
“I think it understood me!” Onsi said eagerly.
Yes, Hamed thought dryly. And you probably bored it to death. If it was already dead, you might have just bored it back to death.
Hamed and Onsi are nothing if not dogged and persistent. Another agent, Fatma el-Sha’arawi, might currently be getting all the limelight, and Hamed wistfully thinks it might be nice to get his picture in the paper, too, but once on the job, he’s determined to solve this case. And despite the way they decide to tackle the fiend, Hamed and Onsi are brave in the face of terrible danger as well as resolute in trying to protect the general public.
The story presents a different Cairo and Egypt – ones in which the country has become pre-eminent in the world, thrown off the shackles of British subjugation, and is a cosmopolitan blend of cultures, races, religions, and magic. It’s fast paced and tightly plotted with touches that root it in the everyday that readers will recognize as well as a wonderfully built world that is distinctly Egyptian and blended with magic – some of it terrifying. I certainly hope I can read more of Agents Hamed and Onsi. They’re delightful. A-