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 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).
Like my reviews, but wondering who that Felix fellow is? He’s my protagonist, an occult detective from a world based on ancient Rome. He likes to read as much as I do – especially the juxtaposition of history, mystery, and fantasy – and is certainly not afraid to voice his opinion. You can meet him on the free short stories page!