Read: 12 January, 2018
Overall, I found this to be a really solid anthology! There were a few stories that I didn’t like, and more that I think I just didn’t really get, but the proportion of great to not great is excellent.
“The Djinn Falls in Love” by Hermes
The anthology starts with a poem. Poems tend to be a little more ambiguous or open to interpretation, but I think it’s comparing the force of nature that is the djinn to the force of nature that is love. Whatever it’s about, it has quite a bit of powerful imagery packed into a rather short piece.
“The Congregation” by Kamila Shamsie
Starting off with a bang, this is one of my favourite stories in the collection. It starts as this beautiful, dreamlike queer love story between a human and a djinn. Then, unfortunately, the story keeps going and the love between the two young men is revealed to be that of two brothers. It’s disappointing that the story went so far, then shied away from what it could have been. It’s still a good story, though, with a strong fairy tale flavour.
“How We Remember You” by Kuzhali Manichavel
I feel like I don’t quite get this story. From what I could tell, it’s about a djinn living among people, but then he gets ill so the children kill him. I suppose it’s a commentary on something, or perhaps it alludes to other stories that I’m not familiar with? It’s well written, but I just don’t feel like I grasped what the author was trying to convey.
“Hurrem and the Djinn” by Claire North
This is one of those stories that’s frustrating because I wanted so much more – more exploration of the characters, more exploration of the world, more. Hurrem – a sultana believed to be using her control of djinn to manipulate the sultan – isn’t physically present in much of the story, yet she is present on every page. She is loved, and the ending reveals her to have remarkable strength and intrigue-savvy. I would happily read a whole book about her and the narrator, and the courtly forces trying to bring her down.
“Glass Lights” by J.Y. Yang
This story reminded me of Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” – what if the djinn walked among us, leading ordinary lives, putting in their time at the office, having unrequited crushes? This one emphasised more the wish-granting aspect of the djinn, which turned it into an interesting commentary on pleaser personalities (people who spend their energies pleasing others at the expense of themselves). I mostly liked the story, though I do wish that it had gone a bit further with the concept. I also feel that the whole character backstory about the djinn grandmother was unnecessary, and the story would have been stronger with that trimmed off.
“Authenticity” by Monica Byrne
This was another one that I don’t feel like I really grasped. The idea of authenticity tourism is interesting and worth exploring, but I’m not sure how the story actually connects with that theme (other than the main character’s frequent repetition of the word). As for the plot itself, I don’t think I understood what the author was trying to say – especially in light of the “reveal” at the end. I feel like the film-making theme, and the direct experience versus in-person voyeurism versus on-screen voyeurism dichotomy are probably important, but the execution didn’t capture me enough to want to follow that thread.
“Majnun” by Helene Wecker
This was an interesting one that worked well as a short story. I usually either don’t like short stories, or they read like test runs for longer pieces, but this one was perfectly self-contained. A djinn converts to Islam and is faced with a former lover who is possessing a young man the djinn is trying to exorcise. What a great set up! The story has a solid narrative, an interesting conflict, and a satisfying ending.
“Black Powder” by Maria Dahvana Headley
This is a very dreamlike story that bounces back and forth in time, imagining that a djinn lived inside of a gun rather than a lamp. The dreaminess and the looseness of the narrative made it a little hard to follow, but I loved the imagery. The circle of skeletons with the broken tea cups, the bodies in a reactor meltdown turning into red and opalescent rock… just haunting.
“A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds” by Amal El-Mohtar
This is another of those poetical-type stories that’s rather tricky to nail down. The literal story is about a second person “you” who transforms into several different birds, each time hunted by the “wizard-nation.” The impression I got was of the immigrant experience – each bird representing the types of immigrants and immigrant communities, and the wizard-nation being the consuming force of their new home. I have no idea if I’m on the right track, but I recognised a lot of those immigrant dynamics in the way the birds were described and the ways in which they were attacked by the wizard-nation. And if that’s the case, then the ending is rather uplifting.
“The Sand in the Glass is Right” by James Smythe
Interestingly, this is the first “be careful what you wish for” story in the bunch! And while the idea sounds painfully cliched, the execution is actually fairly descent. It’s told by the side characters, so the consequences of the wish are explored at a bit of a distance. It’s not my favourite story in the collection by far, but it’s a solid entry.
“Reap” by Sami Shah
This one is very powerful. The action of the story takes place in a small Pakistani village, and is told from the perspective of a narrator sitting in a military base in New Mexico. He’s observing the village from a drone, interpreting the heat signatures of its inhabitants, getting drawn into their lives in a removed, voyeuristic way. The whole set up is so interesting, and the story itself – though somewhat ambiguous due to events that happen outside of the drone’s visual range – is very compelling. The ending was a little weak, but I forgive it on the strength of the rest. And this is another one that works really well with the short story format!
“Queen of Sheba” by Catherine Faris King
This is an interesting origin story – showing us a young girl coming into her powers, then realising that she comes from a magical family. The problem is the format. This would have worked so much better drawn out, so we could explore more of the main character’s reaction to her newfound knowledge and powers. This could easily have been a whole novel, or maybe even a series.
“The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice” by E.J. Swift
I liked the worldbuilding in this one. I mean, putting the djinn in space? That is just awesome! The mystery plot worked really well for me, too, though the twist at the end needed something a little more. There’s a difference between an ambiguous ending and a story that wasn’t ended in the right place. This story was full of great ideas, but is another one that would have worked better in novel format.
“Message in a Bottle” by K.J. Parker
Like many of the stories in the collection, this one had some fabulous worldbuilding – the science, the plagues, the monastic orders, the bureaucratic limits to magic… all fantastic! And I really enjoyed the most of the story. The problem is with the ending, which takes an ethical non-question and tries to pass it off as an actual question. If the plagues are destroying humanity anyway, there’s absolutely no downside to releasing something that *might* be more plague, and all the benefit to releasing something that could be the cure. So the main character comes off less like someone paralysed by fear and more like whine and irrational jerk.
The djinn connection is a bit tenuous. There’s the bottle with its morally ambiguous contents, and there’s the face in the mirror. There’s also a rumour mentioned early on that someone gained knowledge from a demon. But there’s nothing concrete to relate this story to the theme of the collection.
“Bring Your Own Spoon” by Saad Z. Hossain
Again, we get some fun worldbuilding – this time it’s post-apocalyptic. I liked the idea of the djinn’s chaotic nature being used to help those on the margins of society.
“Somewhere in America” by Neil Gaiman
I saw this one on-screen in the TV adaption of American Gods (which I enjoyed quite a bit, by the way). Knowing everything that would happen didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the excerpt at all, even though I did have images from the show in my mind while reading. The excerpt works pretty well as a short story, albeit with an unnecessarily ambiguous ending. We still get the conflict, the pivotal moment, and the change – a full arc in a handful of pages.
“Duende 2077” by Jamal Mahjoub
Yet another story with fantastic worldbuilding. The story itself is pretty good too, but again, we have that issue where it’s setting up something so much bigger than the short story format allows. This one isn’t post-apocalyptic, per se. More like post-western civilisation. There’s plenty of humanity left, but the dominant culture is Arab. I really want to see this explored in greater detail!
“The Righteous Guide of Arabsat” by Sophia Al-Maria
A horror story about a religious young man in an arranged married totally failing to see the humanity of the – frankly, awesome – wife he suddenly finds himself with. It’s a cautionary tale about failing to prepare young people for their future relationships. It’s also rather horrifying, so major content notes for domestic abuse and violence against women.
“The Spite House” by Kirsty Logan
Something of a meditation on the concept of spite, using a djinn as a vehicle. The spite house is a house built to spite someone, a house that isn’t functional for its inhabitant, a house that is only suitable for a djinn who is used to living in cramped spaces. It’s a pretty good story – not one of my favourites, but a solid addition.
“Emperors of Jinn” by Usman T. Malik
This is another one that made me feel like I’m missing something. A group of children play around with a book about jinn. One of the kids has a sister who has been locked away because she’s been possessed. The whole thing felt like it had a deeper message to it, but it escaped me.
“History” by Nnedi Okorafor
I really liked this one. It’s like a superhero origin story, but told from the perspective of the ratioactive spider. This is one that would have worked as a longer novel, but also ties up neatly as a short story – a rare phenomenon.