My third foray into P. Djèlí Clark’s alternate Egypt, and the return to the workings of Cairo’s Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, proved to be even better than my experience with A Dead Djinn in Cairo, particularly once I overcame the slight disappointment provoked by the absence of investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the main character of the first novella – although she does make a cameo appearance here, toward the end.
In Haunting the supernatural detectives for the Ministry are two: sedate and formal veteran Hamed al-Nasri and the enthusiastic rookie Agent Onsi – quite different characters that, despite those differences, manage to create an effective team while dealing with the present emergency, the haunting of one of the many aerial tram cars traversing the skies of Egypt’s capital. The Ministry was summoned by Superintendent Bashir, who appears quite distraught by the presence of what looks to be a djinn that took possession of said tram car, terrifying the passengers and forcing Bashir to take it out of the regular runs. Once the investigation goes underway, however, the two investigators understand that the infestation has nothing to do with djinns and is instead something different and far more malevolent, so they are forced to seek more specialized help, finding it in a very unexpected quarter…
The previous story featuring Fatma merely laid the foundations of this alternate world, one where the border between the mundane and the supernatural had been pierced, allowing otherworldly creatures to enter our reality and coexist with humans; this novella deepens and enriches our knowledge of this changed reality, a background where elements of magic and steampunk details turn our journey into a very intriguing one, and in this specific case add the theme of social change to the mix, offering a chance both for reflection and for some amusing interludes.
Characters are better defined in Haunting, something I felt was slightly missing from my first experience with this series, and I have to admit that I took an instant liking to the Hamed/Onsi duo, which helped me to offset the initial surprise at the shift in perspective from Fatma’s. Hamed at first comes across as a very matter-of-fact person whose experience in magical matters placed something of a disenchanted attitude on him, so that he observes Onsi’s ebullient joy at being in the field with a touch of amused annoyance. Onsi, on the other hand, is not only very eager – as newbies are inclined to be – he’s also very much book-oriented, but has little experience of fieldwork. This disparity might have influenced their effectiveness in dealing with this difficult case, but instead the two of them are able to find some common ground – each giving in to the other a little – and turn out to be a great team, not only where their mission is concerned, but also where their work styles are involved.
Even though the main protagonists here are men, there is an intriguing focus on women, both as individuals – the mysteriously knowledgeable waitress Abla and the sheikha Nadiyaa, performer of magical arts – and as a group, i.e. the members of the movement for suffrage, the Egyptian Feminist Sisterhood. Cairo, and probably the whole of Egypt, is on the verge of huge social changes through the implementation of the right of vote for women and this is reflected in the substantial female presence on the scene and in the narrative thread that sees a particular magic rite – performed only by women – as the key to solving the tram’s infestation. This need for change, not only in politics, but also in the attitude toward women, is subtly addressed while discussing the malevolent spirit inhabiting Car 015, which appears either as a child or a hideous crone:
That spirit was just a formless being minding its own business. Then, it encountered men. And they decided to make it this beautiful woman or this monstrous crone, because that’s the only way many men can even view women.
For all his outward adherence to protocol, Hamed is a very versatile individual and he’s soon able to acknowledge that exceptional circumstances require exceptional solutions, and he wastes no time in implementing them, also accepting with grace and humor the very unusual… ahem… camouflage he and Onsi must don to fool the spirit. I ended up liking him very much, and understood that the formal exterior hides an intriguing, multifaceted personality I would not mind seeing explored in depth – maybe teamed up with Fatma, with whom he has an interesting conversation once the dust of the chase has settled.
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 offered a more comprehensive look into this parallel reality, and I enjoyed the world-building even more than with the previous story: there is such a richness of detail here that the background comes alive with all its colors and smells and the views of teeming streets that make the city come alive in quite a cinematic way. Returning here through the full-length novel that awaits me down the line will certainly be an equally delightful experience.