First of all, can I just say what a brilliant cover? It might not be the most bright and colourful, but it so perfectly represents the subject matter that any other cover would have been a disservice to these stories. With its dark shades and wisps of smoke, it’s just perfect for the supernatural creatures found within the pages of this anthology.
The stories contained within this compilation, which could easily have been a mess waiting to happen, manage to impress pretty much most of the time. Mahwish Murad, whom I knew of beforehand because of her weekly Tor.com interview podcast Midnight in Karachi, has co-edited this ‘jinnthology’ with Pornokitsch editor Jared Shurin, and while a few of their choices verge on the disappointing, most are brilliantly picked. This is particularly because across the spectrum of the twenty stories and singular poem included in this collection, almost all manage to tackle these particular supernatural creatures in twenty completely different ways.
Djinn, jinn or genie, every culture has their own interpretation.
Going into this book, all I had in my head were the local stories I have grown up with, the witches with their feet turned backwards and women in white who stand on the sides of lonely roads on dark nights, mixed in with some confusing jumble of information imported from abroad about genies who reside in lamps and grant three wishes. Besides a few supernatural books featuring jinn (The Amulet of Samarkand and Alif the Unseen being literally the only ones I remember), I haven’t read much about them, so it was fascinating going into this anthology being open to new ideas.
Perhaps this is the lingering impact of Richard Burton and Disney’s Aladdin and other Orientialist interpretations, but the djinn have always been firmly portrayed as the other.
Even though the first eponymous poem by Hermes and translated by Robin Hermes left me disappointed, that quickly changed with Kamila Shamsie’s Congregation, a story about a boy who finds out he might have more than a passing relation with the jinn he accidentally sees in a mosque. While Shamsie’s work features both good and bad jinn, in the next story How We Remember You Kuzhali Manickavel flips the tables by making the protagonist one of the humans who ruthlessly torture a jinn. This story, with its flashbacks, evokes a sense of timelessness and nostalgia that was great to read.
We remember your magic. Maybe that is the obvious thing to remember about you. We never tell anyone about it, though, not even each other, because it is hard to talk about now that we are older. The words don’t make sense in our mouths, and once they are said, they just hang there, and they are ridiculous. It’s not something you can put words to.
A few of the stories I disliked outright: some for their weirdness (The Sand in the Glass is Right by James Smythe), some for their incomprehensibility (History by Nnedi Okora, Emperors of Jinn by Usman T. Malik), and some because they tried too hard to do something creative and failed (Authenticity by Monica Byrne). Some stories I just wasn’t in the mood for (A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds by Amal El-Mohtar) while some were too filled with purple prose and obscure descriptions for my liking (Black Powder by Maria Dahvana Headley). A few had a passing resemblance to a good idea (Queen of Sheba by Catherine Faris King) while others were excerpts from previously published works (Somewhere in America by Neil Gaiman, an excerpt from his famous novel American Gods).
There were a few which I could tell held potential but got lost in what they were trying to say. Hurrem and the Djinn by Claire North focuses on three men convinced that the Sultan’s favourite mistress in his harem must be in control of jinn, for how else can she wield the power she seems to have over their ruler. Certain that Hurrem must have some powerful supernatural entity under her control, the three men attempt to call on their own jinn, with somewhat unexpected results. While the premise of this story is interesting, the execution left something to be desired. In fact, North’s story, like the story by Sophia Al-Maria, is ripe for an in-depth discussion, if it had been more fleshed out. In Al-Maria’s story The Righteous Guide of Arabsat, a young, newly-married girl is thought to be a jinni by her husband, who is worried about her voracious sexual appetite. This was one of the few stories which discussed how promiscuity is disguised as supernatural possession, along with Helene Wecker’s Majnun, whose execution of the story - of a young boy possessed by a promiscuous jinni who is trying to seduce her old jinn lover – isn’t as effective as the idea. I had also really wanted to know whether stories would tackle the idea that in rural areas and even in some urban ones, possession by djinns is a common explanation for what are considered deviances from the sexual norm i.e. anyone expressing even the slightest propensity towards any sexuality that doesn’t conform to the male-female relationships strictly adhered to in some societies. Al-Maria discusses this only fleetingly, in a storyline entirely disconnected from our main plot.
Another equally promising story was by Jamal Mahjoub. Duende 2077 is a murder mystery in a sci-fi setting, with supernatural elements creeping into the narrative, but the strength in world building was let down by the weak characters. Characters which let down the story were also in Glass Lights by J.Y. Yang, whose brilliant idea and great writing was bogged down by its insipid protagonist. In Yang’s story the main character Mena, who finds out that her grandmother was a jinni, spends her time in wish-granting and self-pity, making the lives of the people around her better while resenting them their happiness. While on the surface, this story of a bitter, conflicted jinni with a soft spot for happy endings sounds pretty awesome, the final result didn’t hold my attention much.
Mena wondered if her vanished grandmother, the djinn, had ever thought of reshaping the world so it was more amenable to her. A world of hot wind and bursting stars, where women walked strong and brown and proud over land that sang to their bones, where the fires that burned in their veins were lights in the firmament, and not threats to be smothered into nothingness at all costs.
A few of the stories, however, really were just so damn good I would be willing to read a whole book based on the premise within these particular stories. The Spite House by Kirsty Logan features jinn who, having become corporeal, are forced to find any shelter they can, and one of them ends up living in spite houses – houses built not for comfort or residents, but in order to grab land or needlessly take up space. The plot is as interesting as Logan’s characters, and as intensely readable as another equally fascinating tale: Bring Your Own Spoon by Saad Z. Hossain, in which a young boy and a jinn decide to set up a restaurant in the slums. Set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian reality, Hossain’s world is richly imaginative and a breeding ground for a million other tangential plot lines. Along with Bring your own spoon, which is the strongest in terms of world building, is K. J. Parker’s Message in a Bottle, a story about a man whose decision about opening a particular bottle literally becomes a matter of life and death for his whole civilization. Parker, whose story is set in the same world as his fantasy series The Fencer Trilogy (or is it an extract from the series?) is another name for British author Tom Holt, a seriously funny, criminally underappreciated author whose books I have loved for ages, and when I realized Parker and Holt were the same person, I understood quite clearly why I loved Message in the Bottle so much.
The contender for the title of my favourite story in the anthology was a close contest between Reap by Sami Shah and The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice by E. J. Swift. Shah’s Reap features a jinn possessing a girl who comes back to take revenge from her assailant, while Swift’s Apprentice has a ship possessed by jinn, and a young apprentice who promises to remove them all entirely. Both these stories are strong in their own rights: While Reap moves fast and builds momentum, Apprentice won more points for its fascinating mixture of science fiction and fantasy. Reap appealed to me because of its desi setting, while Apprentice places its characters in a sci fi setting, and uses this setting to incorporate all the elements of horror and fantasy within one ship.
It was widely acknowledged that Mars was infested with jinn. Allah might have made the red planet specifically for them; they loved its dust, its volcanic landscape and boundless plains.
Out of all the stories, these two I would definitely be willing to read more of, and with these short stories, both Sami Shah and E. J. Swift are now names I’ll be keeping an eye out for. And if that isn’t the whole point of an anthology – to introduce you to amazing writers you hadn’t known of before – than I don’t know what is.
We have wish-granters and shape-changers, immortals and spirits, hoarders and hermits.
This collection, featuring authors from countries like Pakistan to Singapore, London, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, and more, provides a wide variety of tastes for all its readers. There are a few points of dissatisfaction for me, primary among them being the lack of exploration of mental illness being misdiagnosed as supernatural possession. But overall, I really liked almost everything in here, and I definitely recommend it.