26. Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohamed
*Available for sale in September*
Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn is, as advertised, a “steampunk faerie tale.” The tale of Ali Baba and the forty thieves is retold in a world replete with difference engines, mechanical falcons, and airships. But this precise categorization may limit the story’s exposure-and that would be a shame. Aesthetics aside, this is a universal story about the rippling effects of avarice and its dangers across cultures, magic, and technology.
As in the original tale, forty thieves command a luxurious hoard hidden in a secret desert cavern. In this version, however, the hoard cannot be removed. The protagonist Ali's family had an ancient mandate to guard the now-usurped hoard against the return of the Persian royal family. Without the magical and mechanical prowess of his forebears, Ali's father cannot hope to retake the cave. But his talented second son, Ali, can. Unfortunately, the thieves will stop at nothing to gain the key that will allow them to spend the hoard, which they rightfully guess Ali's family has.
As in other steampunk novels, Baba Ali navigates the rift between the magical and the mechanical. For Ali bin-Massoud, an Arabian transplant to England, however, there is no such rift. The intricate puzzle boxes that his father gifts him are, his father tells the young Ali, “some of the first items to ever combine magic and mechanics.” Ali is a man who grows up to set out saucers for brownies before he begins to tinker in his master artificer’s workshop. Ali's master-mentor is none other than Charles Babbage, who shoulders the role of the proper English skeptic. Babbage's "difference engine," the forerunner of the modern computer, also makes a cameo appearance.
While I have had my doubts about the steampunk aesthetic in the past, the authors' use of it here has opened [the gears of] my mind to the [steam-powered] possibilities. The plethora of unusual objects creates an atmosphere of mystery and curiosity. As with most steampunk novels, many oddly named inventions can be discerned through their Latin prefixes and suffixes (While most Arabian terms can be determined from context, readers can avail themselves of a helpful glossary in the back). The magical/mechanical context allows the authors to get away with some otherwise hokey phrases (“his hand took on the glow of power”) and descriptive passages that further contribute to atmosphere. The very thoughts and feelings of the characters reflect machinery; when in fear, Ali’s “heart [stutters] like a stuck gear.” The technological aspect is welded seamlessly into the texture of the original folk tale, even supporting a crucial plot point on its hinges. The tale is further lubricated with details plundered from the other thousand and one nights, including "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp."
The novel is also deeply rooted in Arabian and Persian history. Though it begins in Victorian England, the desert and his hometown Wadi Al-Nejd will soon call Ali home (via airship, natch).Playful myth mingles here with a more realist sense of Islam and nineteenth-century Arabian custom. The forty thieves may invoke the classic malapropism “Open Sesame!”, but the characters wear thobes and beshts (inner and outer robes) and recoil at haram (sinful) tattoos. In addition, readers will receive a taste of the still-pervasive customs of primogeniture and paternalism. Enter Ali's older brother Kassim, heir to the family fortune. Unfortunately, he proves an underdeveloped villain whose irrational hatred of mechanics drives the first portion of the plot. While Ali's mechanical talents are an ingenious twist to the story, Kassim's corresponding hatred, essential to the plot, apparently rests on a single childhood memory. Overpowering fratricidal jealousy was not a feature of the original tale, and is hard to account for in the retelling. That said, Kassim's wife Malakeh enables the authors to portray a female character who, while limited, is well able to assert her own desires and schemes, a very satisfying element.
Considering the limitations of women at that time, but also the components of the original story, it is interesting that the authors unite the magical and mechanical in a female djinn (or jinni) who inhabits a mechanical female body. Why would such a powerful creature so domesticate herself? It is, of course, a hyperbole for the clever female servant in the original tale. Why is she so dedicated to Ali? Though a mechanical genius and kind at heart, Ali can play only a bumbling Pygmalion to this superlative Galatea.
The opening somewhat presumptuously invokes "Sister Scheherazade," but as the novel proceeds, the reader becomes as entranced as her famous listener. The authors' version of the Forty Thieves' Cave would have steampunkers selling their souls (or at least their corsets) for a glimpse. But for a novel that's full of things, the message is one that's more consistent with traditional Islam than twenty-first century consumerism. Greed, or the coveting of others' things, can destroy your life. Instead, make your own things and be content. Or, in this case, engineer a charming new novel from an old but trusty engine of story parts!
Received for review from the authors and publisher.