The fact the main characters are bored with a haunted, semi-sentient, magically propelled tram car in 1910s Cairo is a pretty good indication of things to come in P. Djeli Clark’s The Hunting of Tram Car 015. This slim novella may be a little light in character development or narrative indulgence, but packs in a delightful number of twists and turns into just 144 pages.
As I said, Agent Hamed Nasr is bored with his latest case for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities: merely a haunted tram car. Sigh. SO blah. His new partner, Agent Onsi Youssef, is less bored, but this is Onsi’s first case; the ink is barely dry on his diploma. Still, it’s the case they have, so they investigate. Their clues thus far: in the tram car, which is powered and given some sentience by djinn magic rediscovered after Egyptians kicked the British out just before the turn of the century, passengers have reported seeing and hearing strange things. One passenger was even attacked, though she escaped harm beyond her clothes being shredded by ghostly claws of some sort. When Hamed and Onsi investigate, though, they see signs that the haunting is caused not by a ghost but a minor djinn of some sort.
Because they do belong to a governmental bureaucracy, budget is on the forefront of their minds, so they put their heads together to try to find a solution that won’t place them on desk duty until the next quarter’s budget comes through. A waitress with a keen ear sends them to a group of women performing what basically amounts to semi-legal exorcisms of djinn (because in a world rife with bureaucracy, unregulated folk magic is just an untapped source of taxes). But as the two agents dig deeper into haunting, they learn all is not as it seems, because this book wouldn’t be nearly as fun if it were.
I’ve mentioned bureaucracy twice now, and Tram Car doesn’t just make government employees its stars because Clark likes writing “Agent” a whole bunch; the complexities and red tape and frustrations and badge-raising power that all comes along with that sort of gig is woven tightly throughout the story. In this imagined post-colonial Egypt (in actual, significantly less magical history, the British Empire had Egypt under its thumb in some way from the late nineteenth century until 1956), Egyptians are plowing their own way yet are still encumbered with the stains of their brief occupation by the British. Onsi, for example, is pressured by his family to get a “formal” education at Oxford, and uses a variety of tactics, including patriotism, to make them agree that he can come back to Egypt for his studies. The suffragette movement is another constant presence as women from Cairo and rural areas alike converge to promote equality. The young, reborn country has already grappled with other social issues, including slavery—not to mention the host of problems and opportunities that have come with the rediscovery of the djinn. It all feels very much like Clark has taken a street-view slice of history that just happens to be fictional.
I say Tram Car is light in character development, but it’s not devoid of it—I was still satisfied in seeing characters change in their approaches, their acceptance or rejection of previous assumption. What it lacks in is the sort of soaked-sponge sort of internality, but that doesn’t mean a lack to the overall quality of the work. I wouldn’t call Tram Car a page-turner, exactly, but I would say that I enjoyed every page that I read and always wanted more. Lucky for me, there is more: The Hunting of Tram Car 015 is a sort-of prequel to A Master of Djinn, which was just released this year and I am stoked to read (I say sort-of, because it A Master of Djinn‘s main character is hardly more than a mention in Tram Car; I assume Hamed and Onsi will very much be side characters in A Master of Djinn).
Clark has had a good year, with another novella, Ring Shout, winning the Nebula and Locus awards, and being nominated for a whole bunch more. Tram Car was nominated for plenty and was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus—all well-earned. I can’t wait to discover more of Clark’s work and see what I’ve been missing out on all this time.