The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark (Book Review)
I had been looking forward to cracking open this novella since I happened across an ARC at BristolCon last year (talk about striking gold!). I discovered P. Djèlí Clark in my early days on Twitter, where he goes by the brilliant moniker “Disgruntled Haradrim”, and since his normal oeuvre has been short stories it’s been easy to follow his career. One of the standout stories has been A Dead Djinn in Cairo (available at Tor.com), and since this novella appeared to be set in the same world, it was one of my most anticipated reads of the new year.
To spare any suspense, it did not disappoint. The trademark Clark alt-history fantasy worldbuilding is there, with the book set in a version of 1912 Cairo where djinn (and other mythological creatures) have been (re)discovered, creating a powerful independent Egypt and an Ottoman-Arabian renaissance. There are steampunk/dieselpunk vibes about it, though without the imperialism/colonialism that often goes along with those sub-genres.
Clark skillfully evokes the bustling, cosmopolitan setting, the details lending a deep authenticity to what may be quite an unfamiliar setting to a lot of Western readers. As a result, there has to be quite a lot of explaining now and then, but for me this just added to the richness of the story. I didn’t feel bogged down by any exposition, and I don’t see how it could have been avoided without losing some of the experience.
Worldbuilding is clearly one of Clark’s strengths, and most of the time with a strong historical bent which must have involved a lot of research (unsurprising for a history academic). Creating a world that is still mostly recognisable as our own requires, in some ways, a lot more work than just making up a new secondary world, and some efforts are certainly less convincing than others. Clark’s worlds are never anything less than fully-realised, even in the cramped confines of shorter-form writing.
That’s not to say worldbuilding is his only strength, because his prose is clear, his dialogue is clever, and his plotting usually good for a surprising twist or two.
Here, the plot revolves around the titular haunting of what is more accurately a cable car, and the efforts of two agents of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities to solve it. The two agents are easy to warm to, with Senior Agent Hamed the more world-weary and paperwork-shy, and Onsi the enthusiastic new recruit with a usefully encyclopedic knowledge of obscure cultures and philosophy. I was at first disappointed that neither was the striking special investigator at the centre of A Dead Djinn, but I see how they were a better fit for this story (and S.I. Fatma does make a cameo near the end). Another key character is shared, but you don’t need to have read the story to get the novella (they can be read independently, or in either order).
Being a novella, there’s a limited amount of said plot, so I won’t discuss the particulars. However, I will say that I was happy to encounter a few twists and turns and dead ends to the mystery (as there should be). As much as I enjoyed Clark’s previous novella, The Black God’s Drums, my one complaint was that it was too short, leaving the plot only enough space to move rather directly to conclusion. Haunting is significantly, and satisfyingly, longer, which allows the plot more room to breathe.
I especially loved the way the mystery plot is interwoven with the major political events happening in the background. That interdependence of world and plot is at the heart of this novella: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 isn’t just a mystery story set in an alternate Cairo, it’s a mystery story that couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
In all, this is another stellar addition to Tor.com’s exceptional novella series, as well as to the author’s growing catalogue. I can’t wait to see what P. Djèlí Clark does next, and I’m probably not alone in hoping that at some point we see a full novel from him, whether in this world or another. Until then, there are plenty of his short stories out there to enjoy, as well as his other novella, all of which could easily be read before this one is even out!
What are you waiting for?