“The tram in question is a design of the djinn,” he explained. “It is endowed with a machine mind imbued with magic. The tram is thus capable of thought, which it uses to guide itself and its passengers safely.”
P. Djeli Clark’s The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is a story set in an alternate 1910s Cairo where supernatural beings such as djinn and angels exist alongside the regular citizens. It’s a population which includes mystics and sorcerers, as well as our two main characters: agents Hamed and Onsi of ‘the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities.’ They are called in to investigate the reported haunting of a tram car.
The case seems simple enough at first. After a meeting with the tram company’s Superintendent Bashir, the two agents proceed to the haunted tram car to see what they are dealing with.
I recently reviewed Clark’s A Dead Djinn in Cairo, a very entertaining short story which introduces this world of the familiar and the wonderful. That story focusses on a different lead character, Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi, but can act as a nice introduction to Clark’s steampunkesque Cairo. It’s not essential to read it first, though.
This is a Cairo filled with steam-driven machines including the titular tram cars as well as airships and the wonderfully-named ‘boilerplate eunuchs’–a type of serving robot. The existence of magical beings has led to a huge leap in the level of technology of the country. Consequently, Egypt is now a major independent power on the world stage. But it has also meant an increase in supernatural encounters ranging from the wondrous to the terrifying.
‘She sat on a seat next to him wearing that simple bone-white dress and looking fragile as a statue crafted of eggshell. Her delicate features were almost childlike beneath the flowing silver tresses that reached to her waist. And she stared up at him with generous pitch-black eyes that seemed to ripple.’
I got completely drawn into Clark’s world. He has created a fascinating setting complemented by some well-written characters who each have their own voice. Agent Hamed is experienced but rather old-fashioned. Agent Onsi is young, keen and more open-minded than his seniors. They are joined by a couple of strong female characters.
First, we meet Abla, a modern and independent woman who works in a restaurant the men frequent. She offers them something more valuable than the dish of the day. Then there is Nadiyaa, a commanding sorceress well-versed in the lore of the djinn. We are also introduced to a liberated “boilerplate eunuch” called Fahima who plays an important role in the story.
“There are others of her kind, and they are bringing their comrades to consciousness. You are looking at the future.”
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is a big recommend from me. If you are looking for a story with an original setting and some well-drawn and likable characters, then give this a try. I’m pretty certain it will leave you hungry for more.