The Haunting of Tram Car 015

by P. Djèlí Clark

Cover image

Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: February 2019
ASIN: B07H796G2Z
Format: Kindle
Pages: 65

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The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is a novella and the second story in the Dead Djinn universe, after "A Dead Djinn in Cairo". While there are a few references to the previous story, it's not a direct sequel and has different main characters. Order of reading is not important.

Agents Hamed and Onsi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities have been called by the Superintendent of Tram Safety & Maintenance at Ramses Station because one of the tram cars is haunted. The aerial tram system of Cairo (technically a telpher system since the cars move independently) is one of the modern wonders of the 1912 city after al-Jahiz breached the boundaries between universes and allowed djinn to return to the world. The trams are elaborate magical clockwork machines created by djinn to travel their routes, but tram car 015 had to be taken out of service after a magical disturbance. Some supernatural creature has set up residence in its machinery and has been attacking passengers.

Like "A Dead Djinn in Cairo," this is a straightforward police procedural in an alternate history with magic and steampunk elements. There isn't much in the way of mystery, and little about the plot will come as a surprise. The agents show up, study the problem, do a bit of research, and then solve the problem with some help. Unlike the previous story, though, it does a far better job at setting.

My main complaint about Clark's first story in this universe was that it had a lot of infodumps and not much atmosphere. The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is more evocative, starting with the overheated, windowless office of the superintendent and its rattling fan and continuing with a glimpse of the city's aerial tram network spreading out from the dirigible mooring masts of Ramses Station. While the agents puzzle through identifying the unwanted tram occupant, they have to deal with bureaucratic funding fights and the expense of djinn specialists. In the background, the women of Cairo are agitating for the vote, and Islam, Coptic Christianity, and earlier Egyptian religions mingle warily.

The story layered on top of this background is adequate but not great. It's typical urban fantasy fare built on random bits of obscure magical trivia, and feels akin to the opening problem in a typical urban fantasy novel (albeit with a refreshingly non-European magical system). It also features an irritatingly cliched bit of costuming at the conclusion. But you wouldn't read this for the story; you read it to savor the world background, and I thought that was successful.

This is not a stand-out novella for me and I wouldn't have nominated it for the various awards it contended for, but it's also not my culture and by other online accounts it represents the culture well. The world background was interesting enough that I might have kept reading even if the follow-on novel had not won a Nebula award.

Followed by the novel A Master of Djinn, although the continuity link is not strong.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-07-02

Last spun 2022-07-06 from thread modified 2022-07-04