A Review of ‘The Haunting of Tram Car 015’ by P. Djeli Clark

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing.

I heard Mr. Clark on one of the book podcasts I regularly listen to, and the way he described his book made me curious. He recently published ‘A Master of Djinn,’ but my library didn’t have a copy of that. Instead, I read this novella, set in the same setting.

NOTE: I have recently started listening to the ‘Ring Shout‘ audiobook. I will not be reviewing it at this time, but I can say that the audiobook of it is EXCELLENT. If you want to read this Nebula winner, I HIGHLY suggest you read the audiobook.


BIASES STATED

To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.

This is a mixture of urban fantasy, clockwork fantasy, Arabic fantasy/Egyptian Fantasy/Albanian Fantasy, feminist fantasy(staring male protagonists), mystery and steampunk fantasy. I am a man with rather esoteric taste in fantasy books (aka, I like weird books), so this book is very much so in my wheelhouse of weird.

As a consequence, as you read this review you should bear in mind that my judgement of this book will be colored by the fact that I am predisposed to liking this novella based upon genre alone.


READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE

I found this very enjoyable. I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator knocked this one out of the park. This book had a good plot, and it was short enough to not overstay it’s welcome. My emotional response was ‘happy,’ with moments of glee and fascination.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (A-)


CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

The heroes are employees of the Egyptian government department of magic. It is their job to smooth out the magical weirdness which results from the culture clash between the djinni and human kind. The book opens with a haunted tramcar, one in which women are persistently attacked. They have to team up with Cairo’s native women’s emancipation movement to come to the bottom of things.

The book was well executed, and several times went in unexpected directions (at least from my perspective).

Overall, I give the story’s Concept and Execution a rating of: (B+)


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

The characters were good. Not great, not bad- good. This is a novella, so I respect the author reducing the scope of their ambitions and writing multiple good characters. Each of the main characters has a distinct personality and behaves consistent in accordance with their characterization. And as this is a novella which is part of a greater series, the characters have plenty of room to grow.

Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (B+)


PACING AND STRUCTURE

This story is well paced. It had no super slow or fast parts. HOWEVER you must be aware that this is deliberately designed to be a somewhat patient story. There are very few scenes of violence/combat, so if you read mainly for grimdark violence of Sanderson-like epic combat, you’re not gonna get that here. This is a mystery novel, so go in expecting that.

Structure wise, you can use multiple different structure types to study this story. In this case, I will use ‘The Hero’s Journey‘ as a structure to study it.

  1. Normal Life
    1. The story opens with the protagonists establishing the setting in 1912 Cairo, Egypt.
    2. The apprentice detective protagonist joins the veteran detective, and the apprentice is presented as needing to prove his worth.
  2. The Call to Adventure
    1. The detectives get a new case; namely the haunted tram car.
  3. Refusing the Call/Jumping at the Call
    1. (If the Protagonist Refused the Call, then) Destiny Intervenes
    2. The accept the case but only reluctantly, for they don’t have enough money to pay for the needed exorcism.
  4. Searching for the Plot
    1. The protagonists are given advise from a waitress to check out the women’s emancipation group, and ask them for some help with a budget exorcism
  5. Finding the Plot, For Better or For Worse
    1. They get the help of the emancipation group and perform an exorcism, only to discover that the monster is no mere djinn to be bargained with. It is something far stranger. The women they recruit are nearly killed.
    2. In the process, they hear the monster speak Albanian.
  6. Success!
    1. They hit the books, and discover that the monster is a specific type of Albanian ghost, smuggled into Egypt illegally. The monster only targets pregnant women, trying to steal (aka kill) their unborn babies.
  7. The Climax
    1. The confront the ghost, with the male protagonists dress as pregnant women to trick it into fighting them. (They don’t want to endanger any actually pregnant women.) They chase the monster down, and defeat it.
  8. Denouement/How the Characters have Changed
    1. The apprentice detective earns the respect of his fellow police officers.
    2. The veteran detective gets the skinny on what his old friend detective was doing, involving a dead djinn and angels. (This might have something to do with another book.)
    3. The women’s emancipation movement is successful in giving women the right to vote.

This is a solid structure. The functional purpose of mapping out story structures like this is to help ID-ing potential flaws in the story, in an attempt to fix them. This novella doesn’t really have any major flaws; instead it holds together quite cleanly.

Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (B+)


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

The monster in this story, which haunts public transportation, is a folkloric monster which hunts pregnant women. This provides plot, stakes and tension in one neat package. The heroes have to get the monster off of the tram car to keep the public safe.

Tension, when properly used, is cyclical: it goes between stages of high, medium and low tension, and then back to high. This book does that.

  • The beginning of the book is low tension;
  • the tension rises to medium tension when the heroes meet with the women’s emancipation group;
  • the tension becomes high when the heroes+emancipation group combat the monster at the midpoint climax.
  • After that the tension reverts to low when they hit the books to discover the nature of the Albanian ghost.
  • The tension becomes high again at the final climax.

The book’s stakes were good. I sometimes complain about the stakes being too high, with end-of-the-world stakes. The stakes in this were much lower, but no less compelling for it. I wish more authors were so restrained in their storytelling.

Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (B+)


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

Tone: This is a bit of a cozy urban fantasy mystery, set in Egypt. While the villain is menacing, it nonetheless doesn’t make the book overall too grimdark. The protagonists were hopeful, earnestly trying to solve Egypt’s problems and get women the right to vote.

Prose: Not fancy, but good. It helped bring life to the characters and setting. The author’s prose helped suspend my disbelief as to the setting and culture.

Theme: Ordinarily when you write a story, you want all the major plot arcs to interact in some way. This book’s two plot arcs were a)the albanian monster and b)women gaining the right to vote. The monster hunted women, specifically pregnant women. Thematically, we’re good. This works.

However, I think the author could have written the theme a bit better. I would have liked if

  • Someone was using the albanian monster in an attempt to somehow stop women from getting the right to vote. This would have been more thematically resonant, for the monster plot arc and the politics plot arc would be directly interacting with one another.
  • Or instead of getting the right to vote, the women’s movement was trying to get reproductive/maternal rights. That way, the monster (which hunts specifically women and children) would be more thematically resonant with what the movement’s direct goals.
  • Or have the women’s movement be against human smuggling and slavery. The albanian monster is only in Egypt because it was smuggled into town against it’s will. If the women’s movement was protesting against sex slavery, as an example, that would have been resonant with the monster’s situation.

As is, the book’s theme is just ‘feminism’ generally. With a little effort, it could have been improved.

I give the Authorial Voice: (B)


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

The year is 1912, the place Cairo. Egypt has thrown off the colonialist powers- including the British, French and Ottomans- thanks to djinn returning to the world and helping them find freedom. In the chaotic aftermath, the new government is struggling to find a balance between old and new, where both women and djinn are struggling to gain the right to vote. The protagonists work for a beurocratic Egypt in transition. They don’t have as much resources as they need to do the jobs their given.

I liked this setting. It was unique and fun. The same goes for the worldbuilding. I liked the golems, the steampunk-aspects, the multinational magic, and the gendered lines in which the culture was drawn. This made the world compelling and original.

I give the Setting: (A+)


AUDIOBOOK NOTES

I had fun, and enjoyed it.

I give the Audiobook: (B+)


LESSONS LEARNED

I write these reviews in an attempt to learn lessons on how to improve my own writing as I am an author myself.

  • Don’t be afraid of using multiple genres, like steampunk and mystery.
  • Know what message you’re trying to send, and send it. Try to integrate your message in with your plot arcs.
  • Small, compelling stakes are better than large, end-of-the-world stakes.

WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?

  • 16 and older
  • Anyone, but especially women.
  • People who want to read an urban fantasy book set in Egypt, 1912.

SUMMARY

A good urban fantasy, cozy-ish mystery set in Egypt 1912. Solid all around, with no notable flaws. Well worth reading.


STARS: 4 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 Stars=Perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended)


Goodreads

Genres/Tagwords: urban fantasy, clockwork fantasy, Arabic fantasy/Egyptian Fantasy/Albanian Fantasy, feminist fantasy(staring male protagonists), mystery and steampunk fantasy.


Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:

A Literary Study of ‘Gideon the Ninth’ by Tamsyn Muir

A Review of ‘The Book of Rumi’ by Rumi, Edited by Maryam Mafi

A Review of ‘Unsouled’ by Will Wight

A Review of ‘Terrier’ by Tamora Pierce

A Review of ‘Breach of Peace’ by Daniel B. Greene

And The Rest of My In Depth Reviews

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