It seems that P Djèlí Clark is going to make me shift my stance on steampunk, much as Anna Stephens has adjusted my attitude to grimdark. I’m generally not a fan of steampunk; the aesthetic is fun, but my forays into steampunk worlds have generally left me unsatisfied. However, I loved The Black God’s Drums, so while The Haunting of Tram Car 015 sounded so steampunk it made me wary, I was prepared to give it a go.
…and I’m really glad I did. Once again, Clark delivers an exciting, satisfying short form tale stacked with vivid world-building and acerbic commentary.
Agent Hamed of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities is a crusty, too old for this shit cop archetype with a chip on his shoulder and a rather green new partner (Onsi). It’s a classic pairing, and as you would expect Onsi irritates his mentor from the off. Delightfully naive at times, he’s also over-keen, bookish and prone to hero worship and talking too much. In fact, if Onsi weren’t a cinnamon roll I’d accuse him of subbing for Basil Exposition, but he’s adorable and demonstrably both clever and insightful. Hamed – older, wilier and far more cynical – is lucky to have him.
Delightful inter-agency politics (hooray for entertaining fantasy bureaucracies) puts Hamed’s department on the hook for the cost of exorcising the tram and leave him searching for ways to save money whilst doing so. Hamed assumes that the services of a female sheikha will be cheaper than engaging an old male marid – because of course he does – and although he’s not wrong, it is the perfect opportunity for side-eye on valuing women’s labour.
While the plot is entertaining – a boisterously haunted tram includes scope for rollercoaster rides at roof-level – it was the world-building that really hooked me here. Clark’s Art Deco Cairo is a vibrant city of glittering neoPharaonic architecture in a world where the djinni returned and a magical steampunk revolution sent the would-be colonisers home with their tails between their legs. It’s an inviting setting even before he starts detailing the social upheaval in play: the fights for women’s rights, djinni rights and machine rights all become relevant, adding texture and context to the plot.
Each scene mixes in an additional ingredient almost in passing, but it’s carefully paced to avoid overwhelm. I’m starting to consider a Djèlí Clark a master of this art – a novella is (in theory) far too short a time for the complexity and nuance he achieves in the world-building – but he does it with with such aplomb that it’s fair to say that at this point I’ll cheerfully read anything he writes.
There are a few bumps in the road – I’m still slightly uncomfortable with the scene that had our two heroes lay a trap for a spirit presenting as an old woman whose speech nobody can understand (whether you read this as attitudes to immigrants or older folk it stings, although I suspect it’s a deliberate invocation of the bad attitude often exhibited by the authorities). Overall, though, this was an immersive, engaging tale. There’s room for adventure, humour and even some unexpected character growth for Hamed on the way – and the final scene sets up an intriguing new character to engage with in future cases (because I very much hope we’ll see more of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities in future).