Book review: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djeli Clark

P. Djeli Clark is a master worldbuilder, and his Egypt of the 1910s is so far his most fleshed-out world. Haunting is one of three novellas set in this place, followed later by a novel. Many of his stories, including this one, received nominations for most of the major awards, and even though Haunting didn’t win any, it’s still a fairly quick and pleasant read.

In Cairo, one of the overhead tram cars becomes haunted. Agents Hamed and Onsi are assigned to the case, tasked to figure out what, if anything is haunting the tram car, and to exorcise the ghost if there is any. Hamed initially grumbles about being assigned the novice Onsi as his partner, but the latter wins him over via his encyclopedic knowledge of all things magical. They will need that knowledge…

In this universe, a portal was opened in the middle of the 19th century into the world of the Djinn, and many magical creatures crossed over to our world. The center of this magic became Egypt, resulting in a massive technological and social growth, and making Cairo the center of the civilized world. Unfortunately, not all magical beings play nice, but people now have the means to defend themselves.

Hamed employs a local shaman to figure out what the ghost is, and when that fails, he and Onsi get unexpected help from a strange waitress. They finally find out what they are dealing with, set a trap and catch the being just in the nick of time, before it goes on a murderous rampage.

As I mentioned previously, Clark is a superb worldbuilder. For me, his most intriguing world is an alternate New Orleans in Black God’s Drums, but the author settled on the magic Egypt as his universe of choice. I got the impression that he had all the characters, world events and all relationships set up even before he started writing stories around them. This shows. He makes allusions to characters that play no role here, while others seem to be forcibly inserted into the plot to move it forward, even though in the grander scheme of things (especially when reading his novel A Master od Djinn) their appearance makes sense. The same goes for world events, which serve no purpose in this title, but just happen on the periphery of the narrative. Keeping the larger world in mind, these events are not too distracting.

Unfortunately, the focus on worldbuilding greatly detracts from the actual story and character development. The narrators are treated as the protagonists, when in fact they are merely observers in Clark’s universe. The main character in A Master of Djinn, agent Fatma, stumbles through the narrative, while all the action is performed by her friends, all investigation is being done by other people and the exposition is actually handled by the antagonist. Haunting is too short for such deep cast of characters, but it suffers from the same problem. The agents seem to have only limited agency, with most of the leg work (and the sacrifices) done by others. The character development is strictly formulaic, along the lines of two different policemen having to adjust to work with their respective partner.

The lack of agency hurts the narrative as well. There is no sense of danger or urgency for the main characters. They seem to have all the time in the world to progress with their investigation. The final showdown has only superficial setbacks, and then everybody seems have lived happily ever after. This is a common theme in Clark’s works, with the exception of the superb Ring Shout, which deservedly became the most decorated of Clark’s novellas (and I believe it was because of the suspense, urgency and personal tragedies).

As a result, Haunting is a fine work, which can offer a pleasant evening reading session. Its worldbuilding is certainly intriguing, but given its complexity, the reader gets only a glimpse of the world in this novella. Unfortunately, the narrative is relatively bland and largely geared towards showing off the world through the eyes of the protagonists. The novella will be nice while it lasts, but it will be forgotten relatively quickly afterwards.

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