The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is the newest novella of P Djèlí Clark following in his theme of alt history. The setting is 1910s steampunky Cairo but djinns existing in the city led to Egypt gaining independence from Britain forty years earlier than real life, in addition to the capital becoming one of the world’s most advanced cities. Just like he did for New Orleans in The Black God’s Drums, Clark brings Cairo to life sublimely; in just 140 pages he creates a more fascinating and believable world than most do with 400. I think it’s the casual addition of little details that does it; offhand, almost fleeting mentions of diverse individuals (creating a realistically modern population), the implications of having automatons (touching on slavery), and protests for a women’s vote all build up a realistic city that functions outside of the main story.

The two main characters, Hamed and Onsi, fit into the classic detective partnership trope of one relaxed, somewhat fed up veteran paired up with an enthusiastic and nerdy newbie. Their interactions are just pure fun, with Hamed always rolling his eyes at Onsi’s earnest actions until it benefits him. And it’s very specific but I’m a big fan of supernatural activities being integrated into and regulated by governmental agencies. As such, I found the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities a great addition. In fact, that’s the type of thing that helps with realism. Of course there will be governmental oversight over something as everyday-life-changing as djinns and magic and it provides a fun twist on standard detective stories.

Despite having only male main characters, the book is very focused on women throughout. First of all, of course there’s the suffragette movement. It’s a slow burn, keeping in the background, but keeps getting talked about by the MCs (positively, on a refreshing note) and most side characters. In addition, every person whose help is required in the investigation is female along with the djinn itself – a repeated emphasis on the importance of women that is continually juxtaposed with their not being able to vote.

The plot of the book is fun and not overcomplicated. It boils down to an entertaining romp through Cairo while providing an enjoyable and unexpected story. The unimportance of the storyline is almost lampshaded at one point when Hamed realises, despite its urgency, how low stacks it is compared to other agents’ tasks.

But more than that, the story and setting is a light commentary on the effects of colonialism, or rather, the lack of. It is a visualisation of how an uncolonised North Africa might have grown along its own roots, by what it finds important. Using a subgenre that usually inherently implies required imperialism, Clark flips the perspective of exoticism (e.g. an agent wears English clothing because it’s weird and exotic) and makes the outrageous (read: very reasonable) suggestion that maybe non-Western countries could have led civilization in progressive matters, such as gender equality, had they not been colonised so many years ago.


The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft

I feel that reviews become less useful further into a series. Of course, they’re important for the first and probably the second to see if quality is consistent but no one’s stumbling onto book three by accident; they already know they like the author and just want to read more. With that in mind, I’m going to be a little more critical of The Hod King than I might be for a series debut.

I noticed that the POV changes are more regimented compared to Arm of the Sphinx’s headhopping. I don’t know if this was an intentional decision, but I wasn’t a huge fan of how often and casually the POVs would switch in book 2; fortunately, The Hod King finds a comfortable compromise between it and Senlin Ascends’ solo-POV by having three clear sections following Senlin then Voleta then Edith (while occasionally dipping into other characters when it feels natural).

The book was interestingly structured – the novel (almost) entirely takes place in the ringdom of Pelphia over roughly a week. Each of the three sections covered the same week from the three perspectives. It was a little jarring to jump back in time just as things get exciting with both Senlin’s and Voleta’s story endings being cliffhangered until the future POV(s) can catch up. But that’s the nature of storytelling and the story was told quite cleverly with everything coming together in the final 100 pages or so with subtle enough foreshadowing to not be overbearing. It felt a little redundant however, to have this clear three act story structure but also have four named, distinguished parts. Splitting the story into four parts is a Books of Babel standard for sure but it might have been better to have three of the four parts line up with the three POVs and then have the fourth be an epilogue rather than having the two framing devices be separate.

Surprising no one, the prose continues to be excellent. Every sentence is given so much care, not a word is wasted – it’s just a joy to read. The book touches on some serious issues – domestic abuse, oppressed societies, torture and slavery to name a few – but does so with tact. It’s all described through a lens of whimsy yet never feels flippant or twee for its own sake. Outside of raw imagination, the characters’ voices may be Bancroft’s greatest talent and have now surely been perfected. It felt like Tarrou wasn’t gone a second, let alone a book and a half, and the new characters Eigengrau, the King, among others, were all so different and distinctly described, they were absolutely a delight.

I only read the previous books early last year and I didn’t realise how much I missed the bizarre world of the Tower but with some characteristically weird and wonderful additions (shout out to the ‘slapper-gram’ which definitely needs to be a thing), I was glad to be back. Without being too expository we learn more about the Tower with some side mentions of more ringdoms above the Silk Gardens and a future plot point in the secret electrical sea.

The biggest complaint I had was in regards to the epigraphs which were a bit pointless to be honest. They made sense in Senlin Ascends, a fun juxtaposition of the Guidebook detailing the tower and the constantly inversely stark reality. And in Arm of the Sphinx I could see the need for them, the diary entries of Captain Mudd were a clever way to fill in some history and character development without killing the pacing. But here it’s mostly just a collection of intentionally vapid sayings from a tabloid columnist. I think the intentions was to compare his faux-profound quotes with the poetry of the less popular Junet, but it came off as filling required space in order to continue the series’ style of chapter epigraphs. Like any part of a novel, they don’t have to be useful to the reader or world, but they should have some purpose even if it is to intentionally create misleading expectations like in book one.

So, I think the weakness of The Hod King was its attempt to stay in line with the first two books both in terms of the four-part structure and the epigraphs. While neither made the book significantly worse to the extent that I was disappointed by their inclusion, neither were ultimately required. It seems they were there simply because that’s what the skeleton of a Books of Babel member is expected to have. Looking at the book in their absence makes it no worse which one could argue would thus make it better.

Despite these complaints, the book really was marvellous. It was tightly plotted with Bancroft’s distinguishingly delightful prose and raised quite so many questions to answer that I’m more than looking forward to a hopefully packed concluding novel.