Review of “His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light” by Mimi Mondal

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 1/23/19. This review contains spoilers.

Binu is an ordinary man who years ago left his mundane life and joined the traveling Majestic Oriental Circus in India. He has worked his way to the position of trapeze master and also appears as Aladdin in the highly popular illusion act based on the old Persian story. One detail that makes this act really different is that the jinni character Shehzad Marid is real, has his own scruffy lamp, and has chosen Binu as his master. The circus is set to perform at the palace of the Thripuram raja for the wedding of his daughter, and in the evening, a procession of Devadasis, holy temple courtesans, brings prayer offerings to the gods. Later in the night, one of the temple girls comes to Binu at the circus and asks him to help her escape. Against his better judgement, he agrees, but his boss Johuree tells him that any consequences are on his own head. When a terrible storm overtakes the circus, Binu goes out to confront the vengeful kuldevi who has brought the storm. “No man or woman is property!” he tells the goddess, but angry about the loss of her slave, she asks for the jinni in return for their lives. Can Binu let him go?

This is a fairly straightforward story with high diversity. It has a strong #OwnVoices feel, and is based the idea that the old jinns and kuldavi have adapted and are still out there, regardless of modernization in India. Binu is sexually attracted to his jinn, giving it an LGBTQ angle. The story also presents the ugly issue of temple slavery, an institution apparently still alive and well in the 21st century.

On the less positive side, there’s not much depth in the characterizations and not much in the way of description or background on the setting—I don’t get much flavor of circus life. The narrative makes a single reference to another story where these same characters apparently appear, but still, not much background. The story would have been more entertaining with a twist or so, maybe if Binu and Shehzad Marid had tried to outsmart the kuldavi instead of just giving in to her demands.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn by Usman Malik

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FeatherPenClipArtThis novella was published by Tor.com. It’s fantasy.

Salman and his family live in a trailer park in Florida. His grandfather tells him a story about his own childhood in Lahore, where a pauper princess had a tea shop under a eucalyptus tree that she said held a jinn that protected her family. Years later, Salman is working as a college professor when his grandfather dies. He flies to Florida for the funeral. Helping his parents clean out Gramps’ room, he finds learned textbooks and finally a journal. His grandfather has been researching theories of creation and has left a strange story in the journal. Infected by a need to understand, Salman flies to Lahore to search for his grandfather’s past.

I started off complaining about this one being another of the sentimental stories that gets by on the emotion they generate, but I can’t pick this one apart. Not only are we absorbed by the characters, but we get to meet the jinn and have a look at earth, water, wind and fire. Malik is an excellent writer. The prose flows well, full of imagery that lets us get to know Gramps, smell the rain and see the flashing colors of the Lahore marketplace. Drawbacks: Slight loss of purpose and clarity at the end. High diversity. I’ll give it a 4.5. Recommended.

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