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The Djinn Falls In Love eds. Mahvesh Murad & Jared Shurin

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Imagine a world filled with fierce, fiery beings, hiding in our shadows, in our dreams, under our skins. Eavesdropping and exploring; savaging our bodies, saving our souls. They are monsters, saviours, victims, childhood friends.

Some have called them genies: these are the Djinn. And they are everywhere. On street corners, behind the wheel of a taxi, in the chorus, between the pages of books. Every language has a word for them. Every culture knows their traditions. Every religion, every history has them hiding in their dark places. There is no part of the world that does not know them.


They are the Djinn. They are among us.
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The Djinn Falls In Love is one of those anthologies one hears of long before it ever comes out; containing a mixture of luminaries of the field (Nnedi Okorafor, Neil Gaiman, Amal El-Mohtar) and rising stars, including people whose profile in the Anglosphere isn’t high yet, it crosses a mixture of different approaches to a singular subject matter – although I slightly miss the original title, Djinnthology. But how does this set of stories, themed around the inherently mercurial subject matter of the djinn, come together?

As a whole, the anthology has an interesting shape; opening with the titular poem by Hermes, it balances in the middle with a prose-poem by Amal El-Mohtar, which seems to also be the point after which it shifts from the more mythic stories to the more traditionally Western speculative fiction model. The first half of The Djinn Falls In Love isn’t exclusively the more poetic approach to stories, but it’s certainly a theme there in a way it isn’t in the second half; thus Kamila Shamsie’s beautiful, sad tale, ‘The Congregation’, shares space with the very 1,001 Nights-reminiscent ‘Majnun’ by Helene Wecker, another tale of tragic love with a very different narrative trajectory; both are about identity and what one has to sacrifice for one’s own independent identity, and both are beautifully shaped around a kind of emotional core of personal singularity. J.Y. Yang’s ‘Glass Lights’, on the other hand, is almost more defined by an absence of self; it’s a very beautiful, quiet, subtle kind of tragedy, of selflessness and personal obliteration, amazingly simple and subtle and powerful. The bookend story to this half of the collection, on the other hand, is the triumphant ‘A Tale Of Ash In Seven Birds’ by Amal El-Mohtar, a prose-poem in seven segments, a kind of building beauty and power, with shifting voice and amazingly beautiful writing. It is a stunningly self-contained piece of absolute rising beauty.

Not everything in this first half connects, though. The Djinn Falls In Love includes some mythological stories which feel a little obvious; Claire North’s ‘Hurren and the Djinn’, with its explicit connection to the 1,001 Nights, tells the reader its obvious and inevitable ending way before it manages to actually reach that point. Maria Dahvana Headley’s ‘Black Powder’, on the other hand, just feels like it would work better in the second half of the book… after a substantial rewrite; it tends towards women as objects of violence, not subjects, and feels overextended and somehow consistently fails to connect emotionally across its length.

The second half of the anthology is stories that are much more traditionally in the Western speculative fiction mode, and much less mythological in feeling, on the whole; the exception is Nnedi Okorafor’s beautiful closer, ‘History’, which straddles the line between the two modes fantastically and is a really beautiful little tale of unexpected consequences and of power and choices. Similarly, Catherine Faris King’s ‘Queen of Sheba’ is a brilliant slipstream story, which reminded me of Daniel José Older’s Bone Street Rhumba, where magic appears around the lived experiences of people in marginalised communities, and comes from those communities. Taking a very different approach, Saad Z. Hossain’s ‘Bring Your Own Spoon’ developes from a fun, seemingly quite whimsical story to a very profound piece of writing about living on the edge of the acceptable and respectable, and of community; it’s a powerful story that really does take its whimsy seriously. ‘Reap’ by Sami Shah, on the other hand, starts grimly serious and stays that way; told from the point of view of the team flying a drone over Pakistan, it really drives home the strange way wars are fought by industrialised nations, so divorced from the reality of the people they effect.

Two stories in this section fail in a very similar way; both James Smythe’s ‘The Sand in the Glass is Right’ and Kirsty Logan’s ‘Spite House’ felt like they really needed to establish a much stronger emotional connection with the reader to work. Both are stories about unintended consequences and misdirected wishes, and both feel a little padded, as if they really could have been trimmed and made a clearer, more powerful version of themselves; this is especially surprising in Logan’s case, given some of her beautiful past work that would stand alongside much of the first half of this volume. K. J. Parker’s story, ‘Message in a Bottle’, meanwhile, feels rather like anyone who has read a few Parker stories has read it before; it follows what is now a familiar pattern and model from him, without really deviating in any interesting directions. It’s undeniably well done, but feels a little divorced from the rest of this collection.

Finally, ‘Duende 2077’ by Jamal Mahjoub is the story in The Djinn Falls In Love that really fell apart for me. Set in a near-future world ruled by an Islamic Caliphate, with a Londonistan, regular beheadings of criminals, and a corrupt, hypocritical elite who indulge in haram pleasures they deny others, it felt like a fantasy ripped from a Daily Mail headline; in a longer, more developed work, that might work, but as it is, it feels like the setting is a bunch of Islamophobic tropes slammed together. That’s a shame, because the noirish political thriller plot deserved a lot better.

The Djinn Falls In Love isn’t a perfect anthology; it’s got, like all anthologies, its hits and its misses. But Shurin and Murad have assembled here a really strong collection of stories, and the standouts really are outstanding – this anthology is worth the price of admission for El-Mohtar, Okorafor, Shamsie, Wecker and Yang alone!

DISCLOSURE: This review is based on a copy received for review from the publisher, Solaris, at work. I am friends with Amal El-Mohtar and J.Y. Yang, who each have a story in the anthology, as aforementioned.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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Nothing More to Lose by Najwan Darwish (trans Kareem James Abu-Zeid)

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Nothing More To Lose is the first collection of poems by Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish to appear in English. Hailed across the Arab world and beyond, Darwish’s poetry walks the razor’s edge between despair and resistance, between dark humour and harsh political realities. With incisive imagery and passionate lyricism, Darwish confronts themes of equality and justice while offering a radical, more inclusive, rewriting of what it means to be both Arab and Palestinian living in Jerusalem, his birthplace.
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Between Amal El-Mohtar and Liz Bourke, I suppose it was inevitable I was going to read Darwish’s collection. So, I did…

Nothing More To Lose is simultaneously nothing to do with speculative fiction, and also completely dystopian. But then, the world Darwish is writing about is dystopian; and that is brought across tremendously, painfully well by his poetry. It’s not soft-edged, it’s not polite, it’s blunt and brutal, it calls out Zionists, it names genocide as genocide, it rages against injustice and discrimination. This isn’t a collection for people looking for a polite Palestinian talking about idyllic themes; it’s a collection for those wanting to look at the rage, the disenfranchisement, the horror that is the Palestinian condition in the modern world.

Something that really stands out is the historical engagement and literacy of Darwish’s poems. In an early poem in Nothing More To Lose, ‘Identity Card’ (p8-9), Darwish references Byzantium, the Armenian genocide (a recurring topic), the Kurds, the Algerians, the expulsion of the Jews from Andalucia – and explicitly states a connection and an empathy with all of them. That sense of global parallels, of connections across different communities and cultures, of a shared humanity across persecuted people, really gives depth and something unique to Darwish’s poetry, and that it is on display in so much of Nothing More To Lose is really fascinating.

This isn’t a simple collection though; Darwish has all kinds of different poems in here, all undoubtedly influenced by the dystopic situation of Palestinians, but focusing on different aspects of that. Nothing More To Lose has elegies, laments, love poetry, a certain amount of humour (albeit largely dark), anger, despair, and a certain sort of peace at times; it’s a dense, varied, fluid collection of poetry in that regard, and a really beautiful slim volume that encapsulates so much of the human condition – but specifically the Palestinian condition.

Darwish has really given us poetry that reveals one person’s experience of the Palestinian condition; Nothing More To Lose is a beautiful, painful collection that should be given to everyone who wants to talk about the Middle East before they say another word.

A Woman of Mars by Helen Patrice

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A Woman of Mars is a slim volume of 34 poems told in chronological order about the first colony on Mars. The covers are Mars red augmented with drawings by Bob Eggleton. Upon opening the front cover, is found a gem of a watercolour painting acting as ‘Red Mars’ end papers. Inside the back cover is another, different painting depicting ‘Green Mars’ after the beginning of terra-forming.
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It is rare for single-author poetry collections to have such a strong theme throughout them, let alone a single narrative strand, when the poems were originally published individually; that each of Patrice’s poems can be seen as a section of the short story that the whole volume forms is one of the beauties of A Woman of Mars. Not only is there a narrative consistency but Patrice has also achieved a consistency of voice, an impressive achievement in poetry especially if combined with the growth across the course of the volume with the putative-poet; coming to terms with her own self, with Mars, and with the reality of life imposed by Mars, Patrice has really captured a fascinating journey in these poems for the protagonist-narrator-poet.

She is one of a small cast we get to know in any detail, but that compactness is incredibly impactful in the context of A Woman of Mars; it drives home the claustrophobia the narrator feels, and emphasises the smallness of the group. Patrice uses every poem to tell a different part of the story, some following directly from others, sometimes seeing a wait of a few poems for something to be picked up again; that interlacing works really effectively in picking up strands and continuing them across the collection, a beautiful touch.

It would be remiss to review Patrice’s work without also mentioning Eggleton’s. The first time I read A Woman of Mars I had eyes only for the text, but then I went back through and looked at the use of his artwork, especially the endpapers, and was rather blown away. They perfectly encapsulate the narrative, between one endpaper and the other, between the illustrations throughout the book; they perfectly augment the narrative of Mars that Patrice has given us in her poems.

A Woman of Mars is hardly alone in being a collection of SF poetry, but it is a beautiful collection; both physically and in its poetry. I commend it to you all.

Here, We Cross ed. Rose Lemberg

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Here, We Cross collects twenty-two queer and genderfluid poems from the digital pages of Stone Telling magazine. This chapbook is a celebration of speculative poetry that is diverse and varied; here you will find poems with speakers or protagonists who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, genderqueer, trans*, asexual, and neutrois; speakers who struggle with the body and the society’s imposed readings of that body. It is a painful book, a triumphant book, full of works that soar and breathe and live. Just like us.
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I’m, it has to be said, an on-and-off reader of poetry; epics aside, I’ll usually dip into and out of collections or anthologies for a couple of poems then put them down again for a while until the mood suits me again. My approach to Here, We Cross was radically different; I sat down and simply read, from the introduction through to the end of the last poem, and I think that different approach was very rewarding. I’m not entirely sure how to analyse or review an anthology of poetry, but here goes…

Here, We Cross is not just a collection of poems that present different views on queerness; it’s also got a number of different approaches to poetry, from the traditional (Mary Alexander Agner’s ‘Tertiary’, for instance) to the barely-recognisably-poetic (Samantha Henderson’s ‘The Gabriel Hound’). The mixture of approaches is handled well by Lemberg in her selection, avoiding leaning too heavily on tradition or on the edge-cases; a variety of styles means that poems are held entirely distinct in the mind of the reader. These are mostly also narrative poems, leaning towards the speculative or at least slipstream; fairytale-like poems (Lisa M. Bradley’s ‘we come together we fall apart’) are side by side with out-and-out science fictional narratives (Alex Dally MacFarlane’s ‘Sung Around Alsar-Scented Fires’) and poems that aren’t really speculative at all (Hel Gurney’s ‘Hair’). The variety of subjects, styles and approaches to telling queer stories, and the importance of queerness to those stories (MacFarlane’s poetry is both truly beautiful and only tangentially queer) all bring out different parts of the queer experience.

The poem that most stands out for me is a prose-poem, beautifully told and stunning lyrical; Alexandra Seidel’s ‘A Masquerade in Four Voices’ continues to stick with me and haunt me, lines resounding in my mind, even as I write this review having finished the collection and pottered around for a bit. A relatively simple fairytalesque prose narrative, it is told in poetic style, and the beauty of it is a dark and haunting one; three pages of absolutely stunning verse(?) really stick in the mind. Of course, it’s far from the only wonderful piece of writing; Bogi Takács’ ‘The Handcrafted Motion of Flight’ is a brilliant piece of futurist agendered storytelling as well as being fascinating poetry, and its use of Spivak pronouns is incredibly effective, as is the slow realisation of the narrator of the agendered identity of the character they are observing – and the reactions of those surrounding the narrator. On the other hand, some poems seem to drag for too long, with Bradley’s ‘we come together we fall apart’ taking up a quarter of the chapbook but actually just seeming to fill space and Mary Alexandra Agner’s ‘Tertiary’ feeling a touch messier and less well written than many of the entries.

Here, We Cross is perhaps most noteworthy, in queer terms, for the attempt to cover the breadth of queer identities; Lemberg has included poems covering gender and sexuality, in a wide variety of permutations, and in doing so has ensured that the reader isn’t excluded from the queer community she is curating. This may be in part due to her own background as a queer immigrant to the United States, and it shows in her contributors; largely female-identified and many of them are queer-identified, both sadly still unusual facts for a speculative fiction anthology.

Lemberg’s collection, then, not only spans a variety of poetic styles and includes some really strong poems, but Here, We Cross also highlights a number of queer voices all too often sidetracked in the speculative fiction conversation, and should be applauded for that.

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