Reviewed by Dan Hartland. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.
In the introduction to their excellent anthology The Djinn Falls In Love, Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin write that “every culture, every author, has their own djinn, jinn or genie”. This is another way of saying not just that all cultures have fairies, but that jinn have long been bowdlerised by other cultures; the anthology’s great strength, and occasionally its only weakness, is that it appears unconcerned by this thorny inheritance of tradition.
In Helene Wecker’s “Majnun”, for instance, jinn are far from existentially hidebound, perfectly able to convert to precisely the faith whose verses also exorcise them. In Kuzhali Manickavel’s menacing “How We Remember You”, it is the jinni who is tortured and beset, the humans who are the sadistic tricksters. In Kirsty Logan’s “The Spite House”, the djinn have been emancipated, but remain only half-admitted to wider society.
The tricky ghost of appropriation is sometimes present in all this garrulous invention. There’s a queasy Orientalism in Claire North’s rollicking “Hurrem and the Djinn” – sultans and harems, evil viziers and powerful sorcerers – which seems not to reinvent the jinn so much as rehash Agrabah. Maria Dahvana Headley’s atmospheric “Black Powder”, on the other hand, transplants the jinn to the Western, reconfiguring them as bullets in a mystical gun; but it’s not clear what we gain from this, other than a tightly and evocatively written story.
I sound more equivocal than I mean to. In Amal El-Mohtar’s elegiac “A Tale of Ash in Seven Birds” alone, this collection earns its keep: as the jinn shapeshift from one avian form to another, desperately seeking one which can survive first a thriving and then a collapsing human society, the reader experiences in a few brief pages all the magic that one might expect to flow from a realm of smoke and flame. In EJ Swift’s science fiction “The Jinn Hunter’s Apprentice”, meanwhile, the jinn have made it to the stars – and cause as much havoc and horror onboard a spaceship as any Giger-ish nightmare.
Indeed, the anthology is often on safer ground when looking towards one future or another. In Saad Z. Hossain’s memorable “Bring Your Own Spoon”, for example, the jinn awake after a long sleep to find a post-collapse human civilisation made habitable only by air-cleaning nanotechnology with which they feel an odd kinship. In “Duende 2077” by Jamal Mahjoub, meanwhile, capitalism has “spiralled into social anarchy, chaos and moral bankruptcy” (p. 207), and an Islamic Great Britain has emerged from the wreckage; here, too, the jinn appear as a sort of meme, a symbol of rebellion and refusal (jinn don’t feature in KJ Parker’s high fantasy “Message In A Bottle”, either – except as a Schrodinger’s mist).
Where the jinn are made contemporary, too, these stories shine. In the claustrophobic horror of “Reap”, US military drone operators encounter a force beyond them; Sophia Al-Maria pointedly makes domestic violence the consequence of her protagonist’s belief in a jinni’s capacity to possess and corrupt his wife; JY Yang’s bittersweet “Glass Lights” focuses on a woman descended from jinn who perceives desires and enables others to fulfil them, but is powerless to achieve her own. These are all powerful statements and exceptional stories. It is a sign of their quality that they eclipse arguably more minor contributions from names like Gaiman, Smythe and Okorafor.
One of the most exciting developments in SF of recent years is its opening-out to global perspectives and traditions. Murad and Shurin’s collection is at the vanguard of this movement, its polyphony testament to the refreshing power of diversity. In Kamila Shamsie’s “The Congregation”, the narrator is half-human, half-jinn. “All he’s ever wanted is to be possessed,” an exorcist remarks of him, “There is no evil here, only love” (p. 22). In its most creative and thoughtful recreations of the jinn, this collection of very high literary merit also brings us closer together in understanding and endeavour.
Copyright Dan Hartland. All rights reserved.