I'll admit I was a bit wary when I picked up Djinn Falls In Love: tempted by authors such as K.J. Parker and Claire North, I worried that the collection itself might suffer from repetition. I needn't have worried. The collection demonstrates a truly staggering variety of perspectives on the concept of djinn, as well as mixing prose and poetry, vignettes and plot twists. As is mentioned in the foreword, the unifying theme of the collection is the humanization of the Other. The collection begins with the poem that gave it its title by an author who goes by "Hermes," then quickly delves into the very traditional, very folkloresque-feeling story, "The Congregation," by Kamila Shamsie, which also contained one of my favourite quotes in the whole collection:
"There is no evil here, only love. God save us from a world that can't tell the difference."
The rest of the collection varied widely in the mood, setting, and in the vision of the djinn themselves.
My down-and-out favourite, and enough to make the collection a five-star all on its own, was "A Tale of Ash and Seven Birds" by Amal El-Mohtar. It is a rich, gorgeous allegory or immigration, where djinn refugees to the land of the wizard-nation repeatedly change themselves in their efforts to survive. An excerpt:
"Great Horned Owl
You are an apex predator. Nothing can hurt you now.
You have embraced silence. [...]
Sparrows though. Crows. Cormorants. All these will fill your belly now, and it's their own fault. All their own fault for not choosing a shape the wizard-nation cannot hurt, their own fault for being small or loud or trying to build communities of which the wizard-nation disapproved. You have learned the wizard-nation's way, and you will be able to stay, now, forever." This was not the only story to explore the theme of djinn as immigrant. "Somewhere in America" by Neil Gaiman is actually excerpted from American Gods, which I admit I wasn't thrilled about, but certainly fits the theme. Comically bitter and rather gruesome, it tells the tale of a disillusioned visitor who runs into a particularly peculiar taxi driver. "The Jinn Hunter's Apprentice" by E.J. Swift is an imaginative scifi story that takes place on a busy spaceport on Mars. A bunch of angry djinn, tired of having their once-peaceful world invaded, have invaded a ship and the captain calls in a djinn-hunter. In "The Spite House" by Kirsty Logan, djinns were made corporeal, badgered and threatened out of their homes by violent protesters bearing signs such as "NO SNAKES IN OUR NEIGHBOURHOOD", and forced to live on scraps in the outskirts of society.
Other stories use the djinn as the ultimate outside observers. "Bring Your Own Spoon" by Saad Z. Hossain, which was perhaps my second favourite story, takes place in a dystopian future in a ruined world made habitable only by the constant efforts of nanobots. A destitute human and djinn living on the outskirts of society decide to act upon their crazy idea of starting a restaurant for other forgotten members of society. The story is gorgeous and poignant and thoughtful. One of my favourite quotes:
"People always assume that poor people are dangerous. They wouldn't be here, if they were."
"Emperors of Jinn" by Usman T. Malik is a brutal tale about a group of children and a magic book that mixes casual cruelty with human possession. "Authenticity" by Monica Byrne uses a film student's desire to get a romantic encounter between djinn and human on film to very directly plays with the theme of observers and voyeurism--not for me, and I'm not entirely sure I understood the story's goal. "The Glass Lights" by J.Y. Yang is a wistful vignette about a girl who sees herself as a passive observer, constantly pulled by the needs and desires of others and her own compulsion to reshape the world as her djinn ancestors once did. She feels out of place in the world, not because she is secretly part djinn but because she is Muslim:
"You don't giggle with a girl in a headscarf, who can't watch any of the Channel 8 K-dramas you follow because she doesn't speak Mandarin."
Some of the stories stretched the idea of the djinn to represent sentient magic, supernatural beings, or even just as a metaphor for untapped and dangerous potential. I find K.J. Parker's short stories to be, without fail, utterly fantastic, and "Message in a Bottle was no exception. A scholar, pursuing forbidden research in the effort to save his country, is faced with the choice of whether or not to open a bottle that could either cure the deadly plague or cause an even worse one. As always, the story is fabulously fun and funny with a darkly ironic edge. Jamal Mahjoub's "Duende 2077" takes place in a future where capitalism has imploded and "The Caliphate flooded into the power void.". The main character is a jaded detective who begins investigating an apparently political crime and finds himself tracing the strands of a rebel plot. Vivid and gritty, it also takes the time to try to explore the motives of martyrs for a cause. "History" by Nnedi Okarafor is an interesting story about a singer who harnesses magic--including a djinn-- to improve her song, and also about the odd quirks of history and the ways in which our actions have unforeseen effects on others. "Queen of Sheba" by Catherine Faris King expands the djinn to other cultures in the context of a very sweet childhood story about growing up. "The Sand in the Glass is Right" by James Smythe uses the djinn as a mechanism to redoing a life over and over. I saw "Reap" by Sami Shah as a classic ghost-revenge story transcribed onto a slightly different space: that of members of the military spying on potential terrorists. It felt to me like a very traditional child-based horror movie, and I found the violence sick and pointless. "Black Powder" by Maria Dahvana Headley is a wild, gruesome, exceedingly American story about a magical gun whose bullets have the potential to grant wishes. Full of archetypal characters and twisted darkness, it reminded me strongly of Catherynne Valente. The writing is gorgeously vivid; for example:
"Each person is a projectile filled with sharp voice and broken volume, blasts of maybe.
The hands outstretch, the hearts explode. The chamber is the world and all the bodies on earth press close around each bullet, holding it steady until, with a rotating spin, it flies."
I also appreciated the more traditional takes on the djinn seen in stories such as "Manjun" by Helen Wecker, where a djinn, once the favourite of Lady Aisha Qandisha, becomes a Muslim and exorcises his kind from the humans they torment. It's a bittersweet story about the sense of loss and isolation from loved ones that the newly converted sometimes experience. "How We Remember You" by Kuzhali Manickavel is an odd and creepy story told to a djinn companion lost in childhood. "The Righteous Guide of Arabsat" by Sophia Al-Maria is a cynical and disturbing take on an inexperienced and gullible "mama's boy" who begins to believe his new wife is possessed by a djinn--after all, how else could she be sexually experienced? It's a telling exploration of morality, norms, and the dangers of combining dogmatic ignorance with credulous believers. Claire North's "Hurrem and the Djinn" is an enjoyable alternate history of Sultana Hurrem. Although it starts as a traditional fairy tale, I thoroughly appreciated the ironic relish and flair of North's dialogue, as well as the final sting about a proper woman's place.
The Djinn Falls in Love gets a high rating from me not just because of the wide variety of stories but also because of a few memorable tales mixed in. As with all anthologies, not every story will appeal to every person, but I believe there are enough spectacular tales in here that the collection is well worth a look.
~~I received this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Rebellion/Solaris, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the stories.~~
Cross-posted on Goodreads.