The Haunting of Tram Car 015
by P. Djèlí Clark
Published February 2019, by Tor.com
Fantasy has long had a history of being influenced by western Europe with its settings, plots, royalty, gender roles, and a host of other story elements. Historical fantasy is not different. It does not take long to find books set in a magical Napoleonic Era or Victorian England (There is an entire sub-genre primarily set in Victorian London: steampunk). With increasing calls for diversity in stories, though, we are starting to see an influx of stories told from different points of view set in parts of the world that do not center around England’s green and pleasant land (or France’s, or Germany’s, etc.). With his Tor.com novella, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark gives readers a fascinating alternate and fantastical history in a version of Egypt where the Djinn of Arabic lore appeared and helped turn Cairo into a major power among the world’s cities. Instead of London or Paris sitting in the center of technological and academic advances, now the Middle East has risen, allowing it to become the master of its own fate and hold sway over world events.
That is only in the background, though. The actual story of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is smaller than that, which adds to its appeal. Two agents of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities are assigned to investigate the haunting of a tram car recently pulled from service. Passengers on Cairo’s mass transportation service had complained of strange happenings on the car, but those concerns were brushed aside until a woman was attacked. Now, Agent Hamed Nasr and his newly minted partner, Agent Onsi Yousef must find out what sort of spirit is encamped within the tram car and then have it exorcised– on a tight budget.
Hamed dutifully begins his investigation while quietly being annoyed by Onsi’s tendencies to chatter at anyone and everyone who crosses their paths. He’s a good detective, but he is tired and wants to close this case as quickly as possible. Onsi, an Oxford-educated new recruit, finds everything around him fascinating, and while his youthful enthusiasm gets on Hamed’s nerves, he can’t deny that Onsi has great insight. As the pair moves through Cairo, we see a wide variety of cultures and people who dwell in the vast city. Cairo is its own melting pot, with goods coming in from places like Armenia and Ethiopia. Multiple religions are represented, too, each with their own adherents and mode of dress, and while religious tolerance has become the law in Egypt, there are still tensions simmering under the surface. Cairo might be one of the world’s great cities in this alternate version of 1912, but people still disagree over fundamental things. Another issue that arises is that of women’s suffrage. The women of Egypt have been lobbying for the right to vote, and the critical governmental decision is set to take place at the same time that Hamed and Onsi are undertaking their investigation.
“Judging by the flyer, these women were part of the Egyptian Feminist Sisterhood– they had been pressing for reform for over a decade now. They’d gotten more vocal in the past year, taking to the streets and public spaces. It was little wonder they’d chosen Ramses Station to protest. It was here, after all, that a young writer at the popular Egyptian magazine La Modernité had openly removed her veil back in 1899– caushing a national sensation and revitalizing the movement.”
The history of this Cairo, the magic and magical beings that exist within it, its colorful swarm of cultures and beliefs, and a solid detective story are presented to the reader in a scant 144 pages, proving that a book need not be a brick to provide a richly detailed world, likable characters, and a first-rate plot. Hamed and Onsi are two ordinary characters in an extraordinary world. Clark’s storytelling efficiency makes the reader root for them and the rest of this fantastical version of Cairo and it pushes forward into a strange new future. And while 144 pages only provides a taste of the world, it is a book that is easy to reread while we wait for Clark’s future tales of an alternate Egypt.