Book review: Here is a delightful fantasy adventure satire that’s laced with wit, often acerbic but mostly wry

By: | Published: May 6, 2018 2:01 AM

In a decrepit old mansion in Dhaka, a motherless 10-year-old boy, Indelbed, lives with his eccentric, perpetually angry and drunkard father, the brilliant Dr Kaikobad, and a decrepit butler.

book review, Djinn CityHossain’s is a fresh voice, and he is clearly a master of his craft.

In a decrepit old mansion in Dhaka, a motherless 10-year-old boy, Indelbed, lives with his eccentric, perpetually angry and drunkard father, the brilliant Dr Kaikobad, and a decrepit butler. They have lots of good memories, but little money and even less food, despite being part of a historically wealthy Khan Rahman clan. Such are the humble beginnings of Djinn City, but the faint whiff of mystery surrounding the death of Indelbed’s mother and the clan’s shunning of the irascible scientist in the first chapter is enough to convince any serious reader that something serious is afoot in this novel.

Saad Z Hossain sustains that delight of anticipation and thrill till the very end, with a crackerjack of a plot, with several twists and turns, where no one is a hero or villain. Much like those spicy, flaky twisted dough sticks, with surprises in every bite, this genre-bending novel can be called a dark fantasy adventure satire—though more ancient than dystopian or futuristic—that evenly layers physics, chemistry, history, politics and mythology, laced with wit that’s often acerbic, but mostly wry, intelligent and fun! The effect is generally mindboggling. I am certain Hossain, a brilliant writer from Bangladesh —whose first, Escape from Baghdad, was a bit of a prequel to Djinn City, and declared the 2015 book of the year by Financial Times and The Guardian—had more fun writing it than the reader reading it.

The story takes off when Indelbed discovers his mother was a djinn and died at childbirth due to natural complications arising out of djinn-human mating—death by Indelbed, so to speak! Shortly after the discovery, he is kidnapped by the evil djinn, Matteras—who is trying to eliminate him to end racial hybrids—and thrown into a subterranean pit. But his father goes into a magical stupor and the mantle falls on to the squabbling Khan Rahman clan, especially his cousin Rais, to take the story forward through the looming showdown between Djinns and Humes (humans).

It would be fair, at this point, to talk a bit more about djinns, who are not Aladdin’s genie, though, they come from Arabic mythology. We have encountered them before as the ‘djinni’ in Jonathon Stroud’s Bartimaeus sequence, but Hossain makes them far darker, less mysterious, mostly evil and complicated, and decidedly funny. In Hossain’s novel, the djinns are actually a race of highly evolved, educated, forever-living beings, with scientific knowledge and more superpowers than the Disney heroes put together. As the writer says, a djinn is “a creature who can manipulate two radically different kinds of magic”.

Djinns, who maintained a policy of “seclusion” from humans, a version of peaceful co-existence, as in the case of India and Pakistan, are upset about humans multiplying, indiscriminately consuming resources and generally making a mess of this earth. Fair point there, and one tends to agree with Matteras, who tries to stop this by gathering enough support to wipe at least a section of humans off the face of the earth. It falls on Rais to somehow become an emissary and use his negotiating power to stop the catastrophe. And soon, the reader is drawn into a whirlwind of characters and sub-plots, a variety of mise en scenes in the skies to subterranean earth and to the deep depths of the ocean, flashbacks and flashforwards, and what not… so much so that one has somewhat lost the story in the heart of the darkness that unfolds. Which is quite all right, as the end is not where things really end.

What happens to Indelbed, you might ask. As did I, expecting the poor boy to be the hero of the novel. He isn’t. Indelbed has the worst denouement ever, and it can be heartbreaking for some—Hossain decided to deny him the Potterish “you’re a djinn, Indelbed!” glory. During his 20-year-long stay in the pit, Indelbed befriends Givaras the Broken, a researcher djinn, who turns him into a dragon in a partially successful experiment to escape. That transformation, described in meticulous and fascinating detail, practically ruins his already bizarre life, as if that were possible, but the boy lives, so I’m convinced we will meet him again in the sequel.

Djinn City is nothing if not ambitious. Yet, this 447-page novel manages to craft some order out of the chaos, and most of the characters are so imaginatively grotesque that while reading the book, one is, as it were, watching the film that should come up eventually. More importantly, the world of djinns is not all magic, but science and dirty politics, and could be an allegory for Bangladesh, the world, and all of humanity when driven by greed and power. And there is no redeeming at the end, no rainbow at the end of the tunnel, no winners or losers; the world goes on and the inhabitants, some of them ordinary heroes like us, survive to live another day.

Hossain’s is a fresh voice, and he is clearly a master of his craft. Lines shine like uncut diamonds, and although events surpass the wildest of imaginations, his skill in the art of the subtle and understated is exemplary. Consider the following: “He flopped to his side, a thin quantity of blood discreetly watered the grass” or “Risal died because she was too powerful. I survived because I am weak. When I realized this, I became weaker still” or “‘Are you thinking of eating me?’ Indelbed thought it best to get this out of the way”. I would be waiting for the sequel, or the film, whichever comes first.

The author is a freelance writer

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