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Book Review

Djinn City

by on January 25, 2018

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.

Book Review


by on August 4, 2016

9781939419729Arcade by Drew Nellins Smith


It is difficult to try and explain what Drew Nellins Smith’s debut novel, Arcade, is about. At its most basic level, the novel follows the unnamed narrator who refers to himself as Sam as he tries to anatomize his almost-closeted gay persona and the role society expects him to play. Other times, the novel switches to Sam’s desperate attempts to get back together with an ex who has long moved on. Even then, that’s not what the novel is about. Smith’s novel emphasizes the space the arcade —a place where otherness and anonymity mingle in between racks of porn DVD’s and dim-lighted booths where men (and sometimes couples) see their sexual fantasies come to life— takes in Sam’s life.

Sam is lonely and fails to know what he wants many times. In particular, the short chapters in the novel reveal Sam’s inability to figure out what it is he wants to do with his life. In fact, the chapters devote a sufficient amount of time and space to describe Sam’s job, the new relationship his ex-lover has, the peepshow arcade, and the sexual escapades that occur within it. As for the sex in the novel, Smith captures both intimate sex and the wild, almost neurotic, and detached sex —sex Sam only sees but rarely participates in. Though I really liked how the sex is presented, it is not the only reason I enjoyed Arcade.

Astoundingly, I believe it is the novel’s refusal to be a coming out novel that made me want to keep reading. For a long time, the gay novel genre has revolved around portraying male homosexual behavior and stories about their acceptances or rejections. However, Sam never outright admits he is gay and it is only his actions that ultimately portray him as a gay man. Of the topic, Sam says “And the truth is I’m telling people that I’m not really gay or whatever, but that I’ve fallen in love with a guy.” When asked what is the distinction between being in love with a guy and being gay, Sam’s response is that he does not want to think of it and that he “doesn’t even care if [he’s] gay or whatever.” Smith’s rejection of the typical gay novel allows the reader to focus more on the space, literal and imagined, of what it means to be a gay man never truly participating in sexual acts but watching them.

Though some may shy away or be offended by the frankness in which Sam recounts his time at the arcade, it is this very honesty that kept luring me to turn the page. Smith does not hold back in his novel: he patiently and carefully walks us down the lobby, through the aisles, and into the booths to join Sam to question the space which has been provided. The reader faces the truth of a situation where men like Sam are forced into literal dark spaces in order to satisfy their sexual needs.

The reason novels like Smith’s are important to read, especially given the recent Orlando attacks, is because the reader is able to see others have the same issues. Sam is not the only man in the booths but there are times when he might as well be. Sometimes he feels connected to the other men at the arcade knowing that just like him, they are looking to satisfy and be satisfied. However, more often than not, Sam feels detached from the location and the people in it knowing that most of the men go back to their wives and families and jobs and pretend the arcade does not exist. Sam does not have that option since it seems he is always thinking about the arcade, the people in it, and how he feels about it every time he steps inside and feels the surveillance the store is subjected to.

Arcade is a short novel in which Smith’s prose is straightforward and captivating. The series of scenes which are introduced with each new chapter create a cohesive story about Sam figuratively and literally watching others engage in sexual acts within the arcade. The men thrive in knowing they are anonymous since outside of the arcade those same men live normal heterosexual lives. Perhaps the arcade can be best described by Sam:

“Of course I could tell which men were rich or poor or middle class, but it didn’t matter out there. After the three dollar threshold, we were all the same… I liked the idea that most of us never would have met or interacted if it hadn’t been for that place, divided as we were by our jobs and incomes.”

Arcade is available now through Unnamed Press.

Book Review

Neon Green

by on July 28, 2016

51riiFrjYQL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Neon Green by Margaret Wappler


Most any reader can come up with a circumstance in which descriptions cannot do a novel justice.  When I was asked to review Margaret Wappler’s Neon Green, I was told it had aliens and environmentalists and cancer, and I took the book with one eyebrow raised.  Now, in all fairness, this book possesses all three of those things in ample supply.  But I have not regretted taking the book for an instant.  Neon Green is not science-fiction adventure, or science-fiction horror, or a morality tale on the treatment of the planet.  At its heart, the novel is a questioning of beliefs, of self-importance, and of our multitudinous blind spots.

The strength of this novel lies in its use of little absurdities to camouflage the poignant realism at its heart.  The presence and occasional perspective of the aliens are jarring interruptions to the mundane lives of the Allen family.  The agreement between the federal government and the aliens to allow visitation through sweepstakes is as ridiculous as it is random.  The suddenness of Cynthia’s cancer and its lack of concrete explanation seem to be products of an author trying to create conflict for her characters.  And yet none of these are true.  Despite their self-absorption, the Allen family is forced to come to terms with the notion that they are part of a larger universe, and a universe that is not going to behave in patterns that they would find acceptable.  Wappler sets the stage for some grand conspiracy reminiscent of that in “To Serve Man” by Damon Knight, but there is no forced payoff or glaringly obvious “aha!” moment.  Everything may happen for a reason, but that reason is beholden to no one’s ability to understand it.

The commentary provided in this denied resolution is brilliant and powerful.  It takes the Allens, especially Ernest, a long time to arrive at their understanding.  Aliens have been visiting for some time and yet Ernest’s primary focus is about his involvement in the local Earth Day celebration.  After Cynthia’s diagnosis, he becomes convinced that he is on the trail of, at best, a gross oversight, and, at worst, a terrible machination.  Through his example, the reader is driven to think beyond their figurative and literal spheres of influence, to question their sense of self importance.  Ernest’s quest to root out pretenders to the environmental cause and Gabe’s obsession with posers and quality musical tastes are biting critiques of what it means to be a “believer”, or an activist, or to have passions about a particular topic.  They force readers to ask themselves where true dedication ends and using a cause for status begins.

In order to accomplish something like this while avoiding heavy-handedness or soap-box preaching, an author has to carefully weave the messages into the story in such a way that the reader only realizes what they have seen well after actually reading it.  Wappler achieves this through fantastic control of language, scene, and pacing.  The book opens with description that is extremely vivid and pregnant with commentary, but delivered in a tone that suggests sterile observation and a heightened sense of being watched.  Then, without visible effort, it flows into an over-the-shoulder view of Ernest and his thought process, which describes the most mundane details with a nervous passion that are immediately telling about his character.  This flow happens with stellar ease throughout the book, and it allows Wappler to introduce things, like alien visitation sweepstakes, in a way that causes the reader to do a satisfying double take.  At the same time, Wappler breaks from several writing conventions to drive home the nature of the universe that she is describing.  White space breaks happen right in the middle of scenes, with no indication of time or perspective change, emphasizing the futility of trying to contain events into narrative cause and effect.  Ernest, the “hero” and protagonist, is continually denied an enemy that he can fight, or even an enemy that can regard him, and his attempts to create one only do him harm.

It is no easy feat to write something that is both simple in its delivery and yet vividly complex in its meaning, but Wappler has pulled it off.  And in that very act, there is yet more commentary.  The novel itself is an exercise in looking at the universe not from the perspective of a protagonist from some grand, carefully plotted story, but from the point of view of one piece of a larger cosmos.  It suggests that readers should take a moment, fight the instinct to take the familiar for granted, and appreciate the scale and depth of what lies around them.  And while the novel fully acknowledges the fear and strain of such a change in understanding, it also delivers a taste of the awe and majesty on the other side.


Neon Green is available now through Unnamed Press.