Fantasy, as a genre, is one long-steeped in the tradition of folktales, fables, and myth. Many of the heavy hitters of the fantasy genre are quite obviously pulled from this tradition. The Lord of the Rings is infused with J.R.R. Tolkien’s interest in Anglo-Saxon culture, The Chronicles of Prydain are filled with Lloyd Alexander’s interest in Celtic mythology, and E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroborus is in the very vein of the Norse sagas. However, with few exceptions, fantasy fiction has not explored much outside of the fantastic realm of Europe, unless it is to include somewhere else as a foreign, exotic counterpart to the comfortable Western fantasy tradition. This seems to slowly be changing in modern fantasy. The richness of other cultures are beginning to infuse fiction output, reviving a genre suffering from a level of stagnation.
A wonderful example of this is Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohamed. Despite the word juxtaposition, the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves quickly comes to mind after reading the title. And to an extent, Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn is a modern retelling of that story, but it is also so much more.
Ali bin-Massoud is a gifted artificer who is apprenticing under Charles Babbage in England. He thinks that casual racism is the worst of his concerns, until he receives a strange puzzle box from a clockwork falcon, which he soon discovers is tied his father’s death, a hidden treasure, and men willing to kill for it.
Subtitled “A Steampunk Fairy Tale,” Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn manages to capture both of those divergent genres. Airships and mechanical constructs abound, as do numerous background elements dealing in steam power, but even more than that Ali’s skill with creating clockwork marvels becomes pivotal to the very survival of one of his dearest companions. On the other hand, the language used in the telling of the story is so beautifully evocative of the fairy tale tradition in parts that the modern, steampunk nature of the tale is completely encapsulated in a wonderful adventure. Through all this, the novel never loses its Arabian Nights mystique.
All too rarely in adventure fantasy do we get to see the hero of the tale be the intelligent craftsman rather than the sword-swinging barbarian. Ali captures the heroic element through his curiosity, his love for his friends, and his innate goodness. Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn falls into that wonderful branch of fantasy where, even though you know deep down nothing terrible will happen to Ali, you can’t stop reading until the end just so you can experience the story with him.
Fantasy needs more heroes like Ali bin-Massoud, and more stories like Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn. This charming story deserves to be well read. Read it, let it sit with you a while, and then read it again.
Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn will be coming out Memorial Day weekend. Be on the lookout!