Saad Z. Hossain, Djinn City, The Unnamed Press, 2017.
I will start straight up with a warning I wish someone had given me: this is the first volume in a fantasy series and it ends on a cliffhanger. Nonetheless, I'm reviewing it because Djinn City was a compelling read, with a rich and detailed world building.
Indelbed is growing up in Dhaka, a bit abandonned. A bit, only. His mother is dead; his father is a drunk. The butler kind of takes care of him, but their wealth has evaporated. The rest of the family tries to avoid him, apart from his cousin. But, one day, some dramatic incidents will reveal to members of the family that djinns are real and it will change their lives.
Djinn City is a very ambitious fantasy novel, and it succeeds in its ambition. In itself, the narrative structure is very classic (revelation, scattering of characters with multiple point of view, fighting for their lives, encountering allies and foes, untangling the mysteries from the past, etc.) but the world building is remarkably rich. You start in a house that strangely reminded me of Gormenghast, you discover an underground prison, underwater ruins or a city in the skies, and all the while Dhaka itself and its inhabitants are part of this world, subtly fitting in a fantastical tale.
The world builing extends to the relationships, whether it is the power plays in Indelbed's family, or the hierarchical and friends/foes relationships in the djinn world.
I also particularly enjoyed the use of science. Science in fantasy is fast becoming a favourite of mine when it is well done, and in Djinn City it serves the plot rather than being a decorative gimmick.
Finally, steampunk fans will particularly enjoy some of the djinns modes of transport.
The characters are all very enjoyable. None is perfect, but Hossain doesn't go for gritty. It's more very human frailties and faults: greed, cowardice, or just being lost in a world that is much bigger and tougher than you are. I enjoyed the human characters, but the djinn characters had my preference, some being either deliciously flamboyant or grumpy or devious and lacking morality, all the while avoiding being flat or too stereotypical.
Sadly, this last aspect contains also one of my two niggles with the novel, which is the women representation. Only two are major characters, and though I cared for one, I wasn't happy with her fate which I found both stereotypical and unfair to the character. The other one was also very stereotypical, if enjoyable nonetheless.
The pace is sustained though it isn't action for the sake of action. You have a pursuit in the air, court drama, underground fights with creatures for your life, Frankenstein like transformations, family internal feuds, betrayals...
Djinn City is 400+ pages long on my ereader, and a lot happens, to the point that the story becomes very immersive.
Nonetheless, it's not all grim and doom. Humour is present too, particularly in the internal monologue of the characters or in the djinn/human relations.
Which brings me to my immense frustration when I realised that it wasn't a stand alone novel, and, worse, that Hossain ends on a cliffhanger. I can only hope that the second volume will be as good as this one, because I am now invested in this series but I lack an ending to evaluate its overall quality.
If you aren't afraid of starting a fantasy series which isn't completed yet, then I would highly recommend Djinn City which has everything you want for in an epic urban fantasy.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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