27. A book released in 2019: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
List Progress: 16/30
(Unrelated reminder: My debut novel The Traveling Triple-C Incorporeal Circus is coming out the day after tomorrow, June 4th. You can still pre-order it now with Atthis Arts.)
I came to The Haunting of Tram Car 015, a novella by P. Djèlí Clark, through a recommendation from the Reading Glasses podcast, largely focused on the story’s setting. Taking place in an alternate-history 1912 Cairo which Cairo first introduced in some of his short stories, Tram Car 015 exists as a firm rebuttal to the steampunk genre, a sci-fi genre based around advanced steam-powered technology in alternate histories. For all that it carries the term “punk”, steampunk is often Victorian-era fantasies dressed up in extra gears and sprockets, with little to no actually subversive elements. Tram Car 015 takes that core concept of anachronistic technology and alternate histories to a fascinating anti-colonial place.
In this world, an Egyptian man created a rift between different planes of reality 300 years previously, and released djinn into our world. Using djinn magic, not only did technology advance in leaps and bounds, but British colonial forces were driven out of Egypt and Cairo was able to grow into one of the great hubs cities of the planet. This is a great set-up and creates a wonderful playground for Clark to tell stories in, even if the story here is less fleshed-out than the setting.
When a magical aerial tram car from the city’s public transportation becomes haunted by an evil spirit, it is up to Agents Hamed and Onsi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities to sort it out while still keeping the case inside their meager bureaucratic budget. Their jobs introduce the readers to the dominant magical systems of the world, while their financial dilemma drives them to the fringe groups and underground elements, in an efficient bit of worldbuilding. Hamed and Onsi are relatively simple characters, but easily portrayed and quite likeable, a necessity in this quick of a read. They also run parallel to a plotline about the women of Egypt campaigning for female suffrage which is sketched out well. Really, the plot is a fairly standard affair, existing as…well, as an aerial tram to show to the city from.
Not to say that that is necessarily a bad thing. There are a few dangling threads (the woman who helps Hamsed and Onsi out with hints about the spirits never really gets a follow-up), but ones that could be picked up if Clark ever writes another story in this world. And if he does, I would certainly be happy to read it.
Would I Recommend It: Yes.