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The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark4 stars
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P. Djèlí Clark’s stories set in an alternate gearpunk Cairo in the 1910s share a lot of imaginative DNA with his Civil War-set novella The Black God’s Drums: antique advanced technologies mixed up with magic and set against a world where history took one or two decisive turns at key points. His version of the ancient city has been constructed with both exquisite care and wild creative abandon. It’s a teeming, dusty metropolis in which supernaturally powered tram cars clatter above the busy streets amidst towering buildings of a “neo-Pharaonic” architecture, mixing both an early-20th century and dynastic Egyptian aesthetic.

The first of Clark’s Cairo stories, the novelette “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” was published online at Tor.com in 2016, and introduced us to Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi with the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. The first female investigator for the Ministry, Fatma wears crisply tailored English men’s suits, as a way to throw shade at Westerners who try to dress like the Cairo locals because they think it’s exotic. She’s called in to investigate what starts out as the apparent suicide of a djinn, and it all swiftly mushrooms into a frightening plot that could threaten everyone and everything. The story is more interesting for the world Clark creates than for its plot, which isn’t a terribly complicated mystery, and which, to be honest, any reasonably sharp reader will figure out well before Fatma does. But wow, this world!

Yet if the story leaves you with the feeling Clark is laying the groundwork for bigger and better things to come, those things finally did come in the form of his second Tor.com novella, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, a slamming paranormal investigator thriller with action, suspense, humor and inventiveness to spare.

As he does in The Black God’s Drums, Clark’s worldbuilding has blended history and fantasy in dizzyingly creative ways. In the backstory, al-Jahiz, one of those mad scientist types with nothing better to do with his time than fuck with the fabric of reality, opened a portal to the dimension of supernatural beings — djinn, efrit, even beings everyone calls angels although no one is entirely sure what they are. These beings live among the people of Cairo like any other city that’s a melting pot, and their presence resulted in an early withdrawal of Western colonialists from Africa. Sounds to me like a good thing, but one of Clark’s funnier jokes is that this al-Jahiz guy has become something of a meme. The locals have their own variation of the “Thanks, Obama” joke for whenever anything goes wrong in life. Thanks, al-Jahiz.

In this story, some kind of supernatural entity has possessed one of the electric tram cars that clatter along above the Cairo streets. This is possible because the tram system was designed by the djinn, and its engines function kind of like a magical AI. We have two new investigators this time, which disappointed me at first because I was really wanting to see how things were working out between Fatma and a possible love interest from the earlier story. But you don’t have to have read the earlier tale to read this one. (If you do, Clark ingeniously sets things up so you can read it either before or after reading 015.) Agent Hamed Nasr and his rookie partner Agent Onsi, who make a good buddy cop team, are called in by the frazzled Superintendent of Train Safety and Maintenance to investigate the apparent possession of one of their tram car’s engines by an entity of unknown nature. The trick will be first figuring out exactly what this spectral creature is, then what it wants, and how to get rid of it.

They naturally have to run down a few false leads, and Clark hints at hidden depths to some of his characters that might be explored in future stories, such as Abla, a waitress at Hamed’s favorite Nubian restaurant who seems to know everyone in town who could possibly help. To be honest, I liked Abla, but she feels like she’s there to offer narrative shortcuts, simply telling the agents things that they ought to be finding out by — you know — conducting an investigation. And you’d kind of expect professional paranormal investigators to already know some of the people and places Abla tips them off to. In fact, if there's one element of the Cairo stories where I think Clark should improve, it's this. His agents’ investigations rely a little too much on luckily bumping into people who simply tell them what they need to do next. They need to do a lot more gumshoe work, piece together baffling clues and tie up loose ends, like real detectives.

But these nitpicks are amply mitigated by the great fun readers have in watching the layers of the narrative unspool. Clark sets the action against the backdrop of major social change in Cairo, as Egyptian women are agitating for the right to vote. And the investigation into the haunting is opening up questions about whether or not the trams themselves might be thinking beings, and therefore entitled to rights of their own. Yes, Clark is riffing on the way science fiction has been discussing artificial intelligence for decades, and I enjoyed seeing him adapt that theme to bring greater dimension to his own world.

When our hapless investigators confront the creature in the train, the scenes become spooky and atmospheric, punctuated with startling bursts of sudden action. And the story ends up especially satisfying in the way Clark allows both its A plot and B plot to climax at the same time, sending us off on a triumphant note and the idea this city’s future is only going to get more interesting.