I need to start this review with a confession: I am not an aficionado of the short-story format. That being said, I’ve seen my share of well curated anthologies. A good collection, to my mind, is bound together not simply by a single characteristic but by a larger uniting theme.
Every piece in The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories—edited by Jared Shurin and Mahvesh Murad, and including stories by local favorite Neil Gaiman and 2016 CONvergence guest of honor Amal El-Mohtar—contains, in some way or another, a djinn. Within Islamic theology, djinn exist as something apart from humanity, but not entirely supernatural. They are not zombies or werewolves, those creatures whose origins are tied exclusively to fiction. If Allah made humans from clay, then djinn were made from smokeless fire, complete with the free will that humankind finds so tricky to manage. Throughout literature, the nature, and spelling, of these figures has varied substantially. The Djinn Falls in Love intends to highlight the multiple ways of writing them as characters, and in this respect, it’s wildly successful. The djinn in these stories vary enormously—they’re alternatively mischievous genies, conflicted and humanlike jinni, and murderous, otherworldly djinni. However, the stories lack the cohesive, collective feel that distinguishes a thematically bound anthology from a bunch of short stories.
A counterargument can easily be made that this is, in fact, the purpose of the collection: to highly the flexibility and wide interpretations of an often-pigeonholed stock figure, the wish-granting genie from a magic lamp. It’s a persuasive argument and one I attempted to use on myself. So why didn’t I like it? To me, the book feels uneven and scattered as opposed to flexible. By the halfway point, I longed for a second round of edits from Shurin and Murad, ones that asked pointed questions about plot development or ruthlessly slashed out meandering prose.
No one wants to read a bad review, and believe me, I don’t like to write one either. I don’t mean to imply that the anthology isn’t worth a read; it certainly is, if only for the handful of highlights included in the 356-page collection. The helpless voyeurism of Sami Shad’s deeply creepy “REAP” is a stand-out, as is Kamila Shamsie’s “The Congregation,” a meditation on familial togetherness and separation. Helene Wecker, no stranger to the genre given her novel The Golem and the Jinni, makes a fair showing with “Majnun,” a story in which the djinn’s ethereal natures are neatly sidestepped for good, old-fashioned jilted-lover jealousy. Neil Gaiman’s piece, “Somewhere in America,” is reprinted section from American Gods, but for those unfamiliar with the novel, it’s certainly a treat.
The anthology is out in paperback on March 14, Pi Day, and much like the mathematical constant, it may well be beyond my ability to fully appreciate and admire as a whole. Given the range of stories contained within, I believe different stories will appeal to different readers, and I’d love to hear about your favorites in the comments below. Some of the pieces are highly conceptual and experimental while others are emphatically grounded in the mundane. Taken individually, they stand or fall on their own merits—but to me, none of the highs were worth the lows. If you’re looking for something unified, something that pulls together the mystery and majesty of the djinn into a single collection, I’m afraid there’s not much substance under all this smoke.