The Angel of Khan el-Khalili • 2017 • Steampunk short story by Phenderson Djèlí Clark

Rating: 3 out of 5.
خان الخليلي 1.jpg
Heba otefy, خان الخليلي 1, CC BY-SA 4.0

This is my first entry for May, the month of Wyrd&Wonder. 

Synopsis: In the alternate early twentieth-century Cairo setting, the unnamed narrator wants to find the eponymous angel.

Her sister Aisha is heavily injured in a fire of their employer’s sewing workshop while rescuing her coworkers. The narrator bids the angel for a miracle to save Aisha. 

Miracles come for a price:

“I search for truth,” she explains. “I seek it out. This is my purpose. The reason of my creation.” You have little time to digest that before she continues. “You will be given three chances to give me what I seek. Do so to my satisfaction, and I will grant your miracle. This is the price I set.”

Slowly, the narrator uncovers the truth.

Review: Last year, Clark’s novella “The Haunting of Tram Car 015” (review) blew me away. What a beautiful surprise to find back into this world with this short story at Tor.com!

Unlike the other stories, Angel doesn’t try to tell a grand story. It’s there to explore the world a little bit. 

The story stayed true to the setting, but was rather light on Steampunk. No djinns, no magic, no Fatma to be found here. But it features a wonderful Cairo attraction, the medieval-style souk “Kahn el-Khalili” pictured above (photo copied from Wikipedia).  The new thing (for me) in this world was the clockwork angel. It is strange that it took up the Catholic Christian cycle of denomination-repentance-absolution in a Muslimic area (though there are lots of Coptic Christians in Egypt). 

It is a retelling of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York, which led to the founding of a workers’ union. I liked this touch of industrialization, sweathshops, and worker rights transposed to Cairo. 

What I didn’t like was the second-person storytelling and the wrongly placed weaving looms which won’t be found in a garment factory. They buy the fabrics and process them with sewing machines. 

This story can be read as a standalone, or simply as a teaser for the upcoming novel “A Master of Djinn”. 

Meta: isfdb. Available online at Tor.com

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16 Responses to The Angel of Khan el-Khalili • 2017 • Steampunk short story by Phenderson Djèlí Clark

  1. Ola G says:

    I’ve got A Master of Djinn on my TBR 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like a good warm up for A Master of Djinn to slip back into the world. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tammy says:

    I think I’m going to read this before I read Master of Djinn, thanks for sharing😁

    Liked by 1 person

  4. cathepsut says:

    I looked at the story and read the first few lines, but I am so overbooked that I stopped. I‘ve been to Khan el-Khalili a lot during the six years I lived in Kairo, so I probably would have a lot of fun with it…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jorie says:

    Hallo, Hallo Andreas,

    I read a novel about the shirtwaist factories years ago and it truly haunted me with its realism and also with its rather graphic violence. I managed to get through it as I was just getting into harder hitting HistFic back then but over the years, I’ve had to beg off certain topics/themes in Historical Fiction – including the more gritty battle driven stories of the world war eras. However, what was interesting to me about your review is how you mentioned the looms vs the sewing machines – if this was an inspired by story, they wouldn’t have to necessarily use the same machines as the origin story would they? I read a lot of respun tales and sometimes its the principle or essence of the original story retold but not necessarily through the same methodology or portal.

    Short stories can be tricky… also I never had someone say Steampunk involves the Jinn as I personally classify those as being part of either Magical Realism or Urban Fantasy; though generally speaking they occupy Magical Realism novels. Steampunk is much more about a Victorian technological world with steam technologies and a Victorian sense about progress and life. Clockpunk and Steampunk can crossover into each other quite a bit too. Which might have been the case here as well.

    Like

    • Andreas says:

      Hi Jorie! Thanks for your comment.
      You raise a valid point with the categorization of the story. It checks the relevant tropes of Urban Fantasy (city, supernatural beings). For Magical Realism, the magic is far too strong IMHO. Steampunk usually doesn’t have a djinn or other supernatural beings, but then again the involved angel is centered around mechanics, the clockwork.
      There is also a strong punk element in it, so steampunk seems to fit (also in the other stories).

      As for your other discussion of looms vs sewing machines: you‘re right that an adaption wouldn’t need to use the same machinery, it could switch to a completely different product line. But the thing here is, that the author uses a „dress factory“, not a weaving mill. Dress factories needed sewing machines for logical reasons. The author could have corrected this either by stating that they use sewing machines, or that it’s a weaving mill. But the combination of loom plus dress factory is just inconsistent. Anyway, it’s just a minor point for me.

      Liked by 1 person

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