The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (Fatma el-Sha’arawi) by P. Djèlí Clark - Book Review

Write on: Sun, 01 Nov 2020 by  in Assaph's Reviews Read 5146

I love the mix of historical fantasy and am fascinated by Middle Eastern cultures, so jumped on this as soon as I heard about it. 

What to expect

A Steampunk-ish world, where in the early 20th century Egypt - after releasing magic in the mid 19th century - has risen to a world power and ousted Britain from interfering in its affairs. The story itself focuses on agents of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities as they are called to deal with a haunted sky-tram.

Expect a blend of steam-powered mechanical brains intermixed with Middle Eastern superstitions and folklore, on a background of the struggle for women's suffrage in a twisted real history, all coming together neatly, concisely, and charmingly.

What I liked

I loved the world-building, with the deep cultural immersion into Arab Egypt and early 20th century background. Clark had played a wonderful "what-if", mixing Steampunk technology and magic and extrapolating the implications. We get a very interesting world, where djinn bring both magic and new technology to make a unique mix from rural roots to an industrialised metropolitan strive to modernity across all layers of society.

On the historical side, from Egypt winning against the British in the battle of Tel El Kebir to bringing forward the suffragettes (and I'm sure his choice of name for Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the female Ministry agent from the full-length novel, is a nod to Huda Sha'arawi, the real contemporary founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union) everything just clicks together in a sensible way. 

Add to that very clean and gentle prose that makes you smile to read it, wonderful characters who you can see jumping off the page as their own people, and you got yourself a truly enjoyable read.

What to be aware of

This is a short read, a novella that will keep you wanting more (which I guess makes it successful). There are also numerous references to Arab cultural terms, from religion to food. While these are explained well enough in the text, it's a deep rabbit hole to go down should you be so inclined.

Felix's review

Felix is not unfamiliar with the government trying to enforce its views on the practice of magic, high-wizardry and hedge-witchery alike, and the resultant bureaucratic mess. Still, he grudgingly acknowledges that agent Hamed is the right sort of fellow. Felix would generally like to stay out of the way of the authorities and has a dim view of their ability to help the common people, but at least he sees Hamed doing more good for the people than harm. Hamed and his fellow agents from the ministry are certainly people Felix would keep an eye on in the future.


Highly recommended! Clark deserves the awards and accolades he received, and I will certainly be looking at Clark's other novels, particularly those set in this world and era (A Dead Djinn in Cairo, with another novel due out next year).

Last modified on Sunday, 01 November 2020 03:03

Assaph has been a bibliophile since he learnt to read at the age of five, and a Romanophile ever since he first got his hands on Asterix, way back in elementary school. This exacerbated when his parents took him on a trip to Rome and Italy - he whinged horribly when they dragged him to "yet another church with baby angels on the ceiling", yet was happy to skip all day around ancient ruins and museums for Etruscan art. 

He has since been feeding his addiction for books with stories of mystery and fantasy of all kinds. A few years ago he randomly picked a copy of a Lindsay Davis' Marcus Didius Falco novel in a used book fair, and fell in love with Rome all over again, this time from the view-point of a cynical adult. His main influences in writing are Steven Saylor, Lindsey Davis, Barry Hughart and Boris Akunin. 

Assaph now lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife, kids, cats, and - this being Australia - assorted spiders. By day he is a software product manager, bridging the gap between developers and users, and by night he's writing - he seems to do his best writing after midnight.



Twitter: @assaphmehr