Birdman was once a regular at the corner of Glenwood and Estes avenues but this year not so much. I was delighted to run into him there recently when I was on my way home from the Lincoln Park Zoo. The photo doesn’t quite do justice to the way his silver hair caught the sunlight, but… Birdman lives!

Yes, he still performs the miracle of turning bread into birds.

Photo by Roman

Djinn City

A review by Bob Roman

Djinn City by Saad Z. Hossain, The Unnamed Press, Los Angeles, 413 pages, $17.99

I’ve been whining about how so much of genre fiction amounts to remixed clichés that have, through endless repetition, become almost unpalatable even when cleverly constructed, even when accompanied by an important message or point. Well, Earth may be a small planet but it is, nevertheless, a big world. Meet Saad Z. Hossain, a writer of science fiction fantasy social satire from Bangladesh: a breath of richly oxygenated water in what is otherwise becoming a grossly over fertilized dead zone in the pop sea.

Hossain achieves this partly by bringing a cultural perspective from Bangladesh that gathers originality as it becomes an import. There is an additional benefit for readers in the States as Hossain writes in English. With translated work, one is also dependent on the work of the translator who, even when competent, might not be suited to the material. On the other hand, some American appreciation of Bangladesh (and the Indian subcontinent in general) will help illuminate Hossain’s commentary and humor.

Hossain is a funny author very much in the style of Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and he is a more than competent story-teller. Unlike Hitchhiker’s Guide, Hossain’s humor is as much in service of his story as it is in service of social commentary or absurdity for its own sake. (Hitchhiker’s Guide began as a BBC Radio drama, not as a novel. Story-telling was consequently a secondary priority.)

Djinn City is a big story, populated by a great many characters: Caution! It’s worth paying attention to them all as multiple characters play major roles, even if they tend to exist more as humorous caricatures than as carefully crafted personalities. That they are caricatures is mostly a trade-off as a character-driven soap opera would have been a very different project (but maybe fascinating?) and probably much longer. I only have one regret about this. I would have loved to have gotten better acquainted with Aunt Juny. She is a powerful character that gains strength from her violation of gender expectations. As written, her caricature functions partly as a commentary on those expectations and some of that humor is nervous laughter evoked by just how uber competent someone like Juny must therefore be. Her function in the plot is kind of a deus ex auntie, as it were, out djinn-ing the djinn.

Bringing a story to a close is a major test for a story-teller. At this test, Hossain is either brilliant or horrifying. If it is the latter, you will see a sequel sometime very soon. When I reached the end, I was full, happy but ready for something different. A sequel: no thank you. You might see Djinn City on the big screen, however. I understand the film rights have been sold.

I do have one complaint about The Unnamed Press edition of this book. Brendan Monroe’s cover art is seriously lame. He could be an artist but, in this case at least, he is no illustrator. On the other hand, when was the last time you saw a new book of fiction with a table of contents with chapter titles?

If my comments are not enough to motivate you to read this book, there’s a much better (or at least different) review by John Venegas at Angel City Review.