The Haunting of Tram Car 015

By P. Djèlí Clark

Rating: 4 stars

I finished Clark’s A Master of Djinn recently, and, having already read the two short stories in the same universe, turned to this to satisfy my Cairo-based, djinn-filled adventure craving. This novella features agent Hamed of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, and his new partner Onsi (who he gets on with, without any grousing, unlike Fatma), as they try to deal with a haunted tram car, and what seems like an easy job turns out to be anything but.

It’s not big or deep, but it’s a lot of fun. Agent Fatma doesn’t show up here, except in a cameo in the epilogue but Hamed and Onsi are great, and complement each other’s strengths well. Siti also shows up, although in a much more passive capacity than we’re used to, but it’s great to see her, and just to spend more time in the world.

This is a djinn-fueled world, where the European powers are losing their colonies because of the return of magic, something which the “scientifically-minded” Europeans reject, and so get their buttocks roundly prodded by the “superstitious natives”. It’s petty of me, but it makes me cackle to read.

I hope Clark writes more stories set in post-al-Jahiz Cairo. They’re an absolute joy to read.

Book details

Publisher: Tordotcom
Year of publication: 2019

A Master of Djinn (Dead Djinn, #1)

By P. Djèlí Clark

Rating: 5 stars

It’s early 20th century Cairo, where magic was released back into the world a generation earlier by the Soudanese inventor and mystic, al-Jahiz, who promptly disappeared. A rich Englishman and his secretive brotherhood are found murdered, and a man claiming to be al-Jahiz is roaming Cairo and claiming responsibility. Agent Fatma es-Sha’arawi works with the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities and is called on to the case.

I’m quite glad I read the first short story set in this world – A Dead Djinn in Cairo – before this. It would probably work fine on its own, but this book does reference the events of that story, and Siti, a core player here, is first introduced to Fatma in the short.

To cut to the chase, I loved this book. Firstly, Cairo feels real and distinctive. I’ve read a few books recently set in “exotic” locations and they never felt distinctive or different. Many of them could be set in Anyville, Genericshire. Whereas Clark makes Cairo come alive and makes me feel that I’m definitely not in London, or New York, which is a big win, in my book.

I loved our protagonist, agent Fatma, as well. The youngest graduate of the academy, who dresses not in Ministry uniform but in sharp Western-style three-piece suits, complete with bowler hat and swordcane. I picture her as a young John Steed, only, you know, female and Arabic. It’s not just Fatma’s dress sense that’s sharp – her wits and her eyes miss little. Here, she’s partnered with rookie agent Hadia, and while we get a bit of the grumpy mentor/rookie stereotype, thankfully that melts away quickly, as Hadia works hard to prove herself. With endless stories stories about endless cousins, and a wit to match Fatma, Hadia is a fun character. And then there’s Siti, Fatma’s lover, and worshipper of Hathor, one of the ancient Egyptian gods. She’s another great character and some of her secrets get revealed during the course of the story.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the book was the emotional maturity of the characters. When secrets come out, there are no shouting matches and nobody storms off. There might be hurt and mistrust, but they don’t just walk away from each other, they stay and work it out. After having read a few YA novels recently with the emotions turned up to eleven, and where people refuse to talk about their feelings, it was refreshing change.

The world of Cairo in the early 20th century, with djinn and other magical creatures is fascinating too. Egypt is a world player now, having overthrown the British, with djinn help, and Cairo rivals Paris and London as world centres. We also get glimpses of what’s happening elsewhere – other native magic traditions are helping colonised peoples around the world to throw off their colonial overlords, and the world is changing.

I can’t wait to read more set in the same world, and look forward to meeting agent Fatma, and her fabulous suits, again soon.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356516882
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2021

The Black Cauldron (The Chronicles of Prydain #2)

By Lloyd Alexander

Rating: 4 stars

From fairly early on, this book seems more assured than its predecessor. The Book of Three felt very Tolkien-by-numbers, while this feels more unique, like the author has found his rhythm and his own style. We start on a fairly standard quest, but I was expecting the quest to capture the Black Cauldron from the dark lord Arawn to be the main plot of the book, but that quickly falls by the wayside, and the search for the Cauldron takes a different turn.

Taran has matured in this book. He’s still hot-headed and quick to temper, but he’s no longer the whiny brat of the first book. That role is taken by Prince Ellidyr, who’s got arrogance and temper aplenty, but is hiding a deep emptiness within. Of the new characters, I liked Adaon the best, the bard with a deepset melancholy about him, something I wouldn’t necessarily expect in a children’s book like this.

The three enchantresses were intriguing. The blurb had set them up to be villains, plotting to use the Cauldron for evil purposes, and turning people into toads, but what we encounter are something possibly more like the three Fates of Greek mythology (they even have even a loom).

There’s a lot to enjoy here, although the book is substantially darker than its predecessor, so if you’re thinking of getting it for a child, you’d be best reading it through first to judge if it’s suitable (it’s not like it’ll take long). I’m enjoying seeing Taran maturing, and look forward to more of his adventures. It was disappointing to see Eilonwy get very little to do here – especially as she’s the only female character in the book, after how feisty she was in the last one. I believe the next book focuses more on her though, so hopefully that will balance things out.

Book details

Publisher: Fontana Lions
Year of publication: 1985

The Silvered Serpents

By Roshani Chokshi

Rating: 3 stars

So it turns out that my worries about this being too grimdark for me and make me nope out of the series, a la The Kingdom of Copper, didn’t come to pass. While I rolled my eyes as Séverin’s descent into full emo-dom (all he needed was some black eyeshadow), he, and the rest of the crew, never became so unlikeable that I didn’t want to spend time with them.

So in this volume, the crew, aided by the Matriarch of House Kore of France and the Patriarch of House Dazbog of Russia are searching for a book called The Divine Lyrics, which the Fallen House thought could be used to become gods, and which Séverin secretly wants to use to undo his mistakes, and maybe even bring Tristan back from the dead. Yeah, he’s deep in the ‘denial’ and maybe ‘bargaining’ stage of grief at the moment. Tristan’s death has changed the dynamic amongst the crew as a whole. They are sadder and less united than ever, but they’ve got to pull together for this one last big heist.

Despite Séverin’s overblown angst, the character I possibly felt most for was Hypnos. He’s trying his best to fit in and be part of the group, but they never see him as one of them. And neither, it seems, does the author, who never gives us chapters from his point of view, unlike the others. I hope this changes in the next book, since it feels like Hypnos has earned his place in the group by now. And despite his surface layer of charm and easy manner, I get the feeling he’s someone who’s deeply insecure and needs to be part of something bigger than himself.

I didn’t feel Laila got an awful lot to do in this book. She was there mostly to both angst towards Séverin and be a source of angst for him. I hope she gets to be more active in the next book. Zofia and Enrique continue to be my favourite characters, although even they don’t escape the veneer of gloom that has overlaid the group, with the former looking much more towards her ill sister back in Poland, and the latter thinking about revolution and freedom for his native Philippines. Although Zofia does provide one of the best images in the whole book, as she charges to the rescue, atop a stag made of ice with a flaming sword in her hand. It’s magnificent!

In the last book, Matriarch Delphine of House Kore was nothing more than a shadowy antagonist, who, for unknown reasons, stole Séverin’s inheritance. Here, the author tries to show us a different side to her – after the bombshell in the epilogue of the first book. I’m not sure she entirely succeeds. While she believes that she did what she did to protect Séverin, I don’t really understand how. And I still don’t understand why she appears to have sacrificed herself near the end of the book. I read the passage several times, but it still didn’t make sense to me.

With time ticking away until Laila’s nineteenth birthday, and the prophesied date of her death, the last book has a lot of plot to play with, but also a lot to tie up.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250144584
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Year of publication: 2021

The Untold Story

By Genevieve Cogman

Rating: 5 stars

In the last Invisible Library book (for now, at least), Irene and her merry band of followers are back on the trail of the traitor Alberich – a trail that leads to the door of the Library itself, and a conspiracy therein. I have loved these books since the first time we met Irene, hard at work stealing books and I think now, eight volumes in, Irene has become one of my favourite fictional characters of the century so far.

I love Cogman’s writing, which is pacy, exciting and humorous. Every time I sit down to read one of these books, it feels warm and comforting, with just the right amount of danger, to give it a bit of spice. This book had the core cast working together well, and although Catherine hasn’t been around for as long as Kai and Vale, she’s got a solid place in my heart already.

Vale was always my favourite supporting cast member, and while he doesn’t get to shine quite as much as he did in earlier books, he did get possibly my favourite line of the book: “You must surely know by now, Winters, that a leader’s authority is limited to giving her followers orders that they will actually obey.” My heart swelled three sizes at that, as he, along with the others, made it clear that they’re not going to let her go into danger alone.

It’s always difficult to end a long-running series, but this brings the mysteries and concerns that have been bubbling about the Library to a satisfying conclusion that leaves the reader on a high. I’d love to see more adventures for Irene in future, but in the meantime, I hope she can relax with a cup of tea and a good book.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529000634
Publisher: Pan
Year of publication: 2021

Sparks and Monsters (Girl Genius, #6)

By Kaja Foglio

Rating: 4 stars

The latest volume of Agatha Heterodyne’s adventures see her fighting sparks, monsters, and sparks who either create monsters or try to pull them out of another dimension. Agatha had hoped to be able to spend time in Britain actually working, but the world has other ideas. It’s not easy being a mad scientist trying to free your town from being stopped in time.

This was a lot of fun, with lots of machinations, plots and counter-plots. We get to see some of the history of Albia and the time of the Queens and lots of setup for future action. We even get a reasonable amount of Jäger action.

As much as I enjoy reading Girl Genius on the web, page at a time, reading whole volumes like this is so much more satisfying. Roll on the next one!

Book details

ISBN: 9781890856717

The Gilded Wolves (The Gilded Wolves, #1)

By Roshani Chokshi

Rating: 3 stars

In Belle Époque France, at the end of the nineteenth century, Séverin Montagnet-Alarie is bitter that his inheritance as the heir to one of the great hidden powers of France was stolen from him. Then he is offered a change to recover his heritage, and he gathers his unlikely band together to pull off the heist of a lifetime.

So this book wasn’t about “getting the gang together” for the heist, as I thought. At the start, they’re already a well-oiled team, having “acquired” many artifacts in the past. Each of them has a reason for being where they are and doing what they do. Whether it’s engineer Zofia who doesn’t understand people, but does understand numbers, and has a debt to pay; or historian Enrique, whose mixed heritage leaves him an outsider wherever he goes, and who hopes that if Séverin gets what he wants, it will offer him an in. And then there’s Laila, dancer and baker extraordinaire, searching for a hidden book and hoarding her own secret.

It wasn’t until I came to review the book on GoodReads did I see that it’s classed as YA, which sort of explains a few things. Firstly, the characters are all young: in their late teens or early twenties, and second, there are so many strong emotions flying around. It was somewhat exhausting to read, but then I’m a guy in his forties now, when things are a little more sedate than when you’re a teenager and have All The Feels.

I’m a bit worried by the ending, that this might be a case where the rest of the trilogy delves into miserablist territory. I had that with City of Brass, and never made it past the second book because of how miserable it was and how much I hated all the characters. Given the end here, I’m a bit worried that might happen here too (although I hope I could never hate Zofia or Enrique). I’m still going to give book two a go though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250144553
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Year of publication: 2020

Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 5 stars

Remembrance is one of my favourite Doctor Who stories thanks, in no small part, to this novelisation, which I read many years before I ever saw the TV serial. It was on the strength of the memory of this book that many years later, I started reading Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London books, which are thoroughly enjoyable reads.

This novelisation manages to add extra depth to the story that couldn’t be conveyed on TV, and makes it feel more epic – especially the battle scene between the two Dalek factions. We also get flashbacks to Omega, Rassilon and The Other doing their work with the Hand of Omega back on Gallifrey, which makes it feel more epic. It also fleshes out Mike Smith and George Ratcliffe, and gives them back-stories tied to the War, and makes the Fascist connections that were implicit in the serial explicit. This is neatly compared to Ace, who grew up in the multicultural London of the 1980s.

Not exactly what I might have expected from a Doctor Who novelisation, but welcome nonetheless. A great novelisation of a cracking Doctor Who story.

Book details

ISBN: 9780426203377
Publisher: Target Books, Carol Publishing Corporation
Year of publication: 1990

The Man in the Brown Suit (Colonel Race #1)

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 stars

Anne Beddingfeld is a newly orphaned, but adventurous young Englishwoman, who witnesses a man falling to his death in the London underground. This leads to somewhat more adventure than Anne bargained for and a trail that leads to South Africa and maybe even true love.

I hadn’t realised that this book didn’t star one of Christie’s famous detectives, but Anne was an awful lot of fun. The story is told in the first person as her memoir of the affair, with some chapters being “extracted” from the diary of an MP that Anne happens to encounter.

Anne’s fellow travellers on the ship that takes her to Africa are a varied bunch, each well drawn and with their own characterisation, letting the reader put them into their own mental map of the plot. I especially liked Mrs Suzanne Blair, the society lady that Anne takes into her confidence; and Guy Pagett, the rather prim secretary of MP Sir Eustace Pedlar – he reminds me of that wonderful PG Wodehouse creation, The Efficient Baxter.

The identity of the mastermind behind the whole thing caught me entirely by surprise, the whole thing was deftly put together, with all the clues and red herrings that you’d expect from the Queen of Crime. While I was a bit disappointed not have Hercule Poirot solving the mystery, Anne is a delightful character and I couldn’t stay mad at her for long.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007151660
Publisher: HarperCollinspublishers
Year of publication: 2002

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