Djinn City, by Saad Z. Hossain
Review by John Venegas
When it comes right down to it, can anything be said to be more essential to the fantasy genre then trying to find one’s place in the world? I’m not the first to suggest that we write deliriously imaginative stories of magic and monsters and good and evil because we are trying to come to terms with our own incredible power and the simultaneous and abundant feelings of powerlessness. We all affect the world, the universe, in all of our living moments, and the changes we manifest, whether intentional or not, irrevocably alters everything else. I don’t mean that as an inspirational platitude – it is, as far as our most brilliant philosophical and scientific minds can tell, the way the universe operates. To have that power, that influence, and to understand that not everything will work out the way you want it to is incredible and terrifying. Fantasy literature, for all of its Hollywood-backed prominence and fanboyish escapism, is first and foremost a tool to unleash perspective and see beyond the limits of our temporal truths.
Those temporal truths, and indeed the very question of one allegedly having a designated place in the universe, are at the heart of the wonderful Djinn City, by Saad Z. Hossain. At its most basic, Djinn City is a novel about three members of a family who must understand the “impossible”, who have their perspectives opened and flooded with scale. We follow Kaikobad, Rais, and Indelbad, three generations of the Khan Rahman family, as they not only explore the world of djinns (genies) and magic, but as they grapple with family, questions of fate and existence, and the dimensions of power. For those of you who consider yourselves experienced in the Western fantasy genre, including its more experimental standouts, understand that this story and its characters are not going to play out along those overworn paths you are used to. This is a story with consequences, grounded in a strange kind of realism that reflects the combination of arbitrary happenstance and orchestrated endgame that makes up our daily lives. You will see homages and ideas that abound in popular fiction, world mythology, and scientific thought, but they come together in a way that not only feels determined to subvert expectations but which does so without sacrificing coherence.
Thirty of the most peculiar shapes were walking around guzzling wine and food, from a thing made entirely of leafy branches to a walrus-man who resided inside his own bubble of water, and made life inconvenient for everyone by shouting commands through a loudspeaker inserted into a periscope-like opening.
That grounding proves quite essential throughout this text, because Hossain is introducing a world that, while perhaps familiar in some of its terminology, is a titanic, labyrinthine realm of possibility. This is a book that has sorcery, quantum mechanics, religion, philosophy, political intrigue, social commentary, genetics, and so much more. The literary and intellectual influences are too numerous to list, such that I would not be surprised if the author had set out to write a work that looked at all of these different branches of thought and tried to serve as an emissary between them. In tackling such a project, Hossain provides a direct, uncomplicated style of writing that makes very little pretense and yet also manages some brilliant turns of phrase and entertainment throughout. He is not trying to be experimental – I doubt such a fragile framework could hold up under the weight of the ideas – and he doesn’t need to be. To again borrow an overused descriptive phrase, Djinn City is a page turner; a story that immerses and keeps you up well past a sane hour.
A crystal city glittered beneath, domes and towers lit up by the setting sun, balconies floating on air, the streets wide and paved with marble, delicate bridges over running water, merchants floating on carpets, carrying fruits and wine, winding through the branches of a great tree in the very center. Humans and djinns cohabitated in plain sight, bargaining in the market square, smoking on street corners, peaceful, unhurried.
Even with the effective, efficient writing style, a story like this would be hard to sell to any but the nerdiest of us without some truly rich character development. The three Khan Rahman men are our vehicles into this vivid world and no effort was spared making them into flawed and thoroughly relatable people. On top of that, some of the supporting casts are standouts the likes of which I personally have not encountered in some time. A personal and particular nod of respect goes to Aunty Juny, a woman of action who, had she been given any more time on the page than she already has, would utterly steal the show from the protagonists. This is a cast of characters with real motivations and aspirations, and they help make the fantastic far more tangible.
Her perfectly coifed skull protected a brain like a rabid German U-boat loose in the Atlantic. No nuance of character or action escaped her, and everything was turned to advantage with the rapidity and precision of a field marshal.
The only real issue with Djinn City is that there are more than a few moments where exposition and backstory very much take center-stage from the general plot. This will not be a problem, and it may even be a boon, for those of us that love world-building (and I very much doubt that this is the last story Hossain has to tell in this realm he has created), but I can understand perspectives that will not appreciate Djinn City’s occasional indulgences in its own power. Suffice it to say that Hossain trusts his audience to revel along with him. And the reveling is great fun. I am fairly biased in this regard, because I happen to be an avid reader and student of mythology and world history, but target audience or not I find the world on display here so imbued with potential that I am already eagerly awaiting more.
A special note should also be made for the commentary made throughout Djinn City too. No work is apolitical, and Djinn City is by no means trying to remain neutral on anything. It presents us with a supernaturally powerful aristocracy convinced of its own superiority. It walks the poorest streets of its version of Bangladesh, exchanging stories with the disabled, the shunned, and the criminal. It is, by the very nature of its construction, an essay on the effects and illusions of colonialism, racism, capitalism, socialism, nepotism, and historicism. But it does all of that without forsaking a fun, compelling story. By have characters with flaws and not blindly forgiving them for those flaws, the criticisms and commentary feel more impartial, or at least more honest. It encourages the reader to set aside their need to inherently demonize or anoint and remember that from the mightiest djinn to the lowest beggar, people are people. Strange, yes, capable of mistakes or treachery, yes, but also things possessing inherent beauty and potential.
Djinn City is available now through Unnamed Press.