Indelbed is a lonely kid living in a crumbling mansion in the super dense, super chaotic third world capital Of Bangladesh. His father, Dr. Kaikobad, is the black sheep of their clan, the once illustrious Khan Rahman family. A drunken loutish widower, he refuses to allow Indelbed go to school, and the only thing Indelbed knows about his mother is the official cause of her early demise: "Death by Indelbed."
But When Dr. Kaikobad falls into a supernatural coma, Indelbed and his older cousin, the wise-cracking slacker Rais, learn that Indelbed's dad was in fact a magician—and a trusted emissary to the djinn world. And the Djinns, as it turns out, are displeased. A "hunt" has been announced, and ten year-old Indelbed is the prey. Still reeling from the fact that genies actually exist, Indelbed finds himself on the run. Soon, the boys are at the center of a great Diinn controversy, one tied to the continuing fallout from an ancient war, with ramifications for the future of life as we know it.
Saad Z. Hossain updates the supernatural creatures Of Arabian mythology—a superior but by no means perfect species pushed to the brink by the staggering ineptitude of the human race. Djinn City is a darkly comedic fantasy adventure, and a stirring follow-up to Hossain's 2015 novel Escape from Baghdad!, which NPR called "a hilarious and searing indictment of the project we euphemistically call 'nation-building.'"
Saad blew me away with his first novel, Escape From Baghdad!, and he only gets better each time. He is a rare sf/f author in English from Bangladesh, and if you don't yet know his work you're in for a real treat. – Lavie Tidhar
"A delightful fantasy adventure with a YA spirit, a PG rating, and a rich introduction to Arabian mythology."– Kirkus Reviews
"Hossain's rich, vivid, straightforward prose propels the story at a quick clip. Darkness looms on every page, yet he offsets the serious stakes with Joss Whedonesque quips... With man-eating wyrms, invisible airships, and eccentric genies, this fantasy-adventure will appeal to fans of The Golem and the Jinni (2013) and the Bartimaeus trilogy."– Booklist
"Hossain blends picaresque fantasy, supernatural politics, and genetic science into a whirlwind of a tale...an imaginative, talented storyteller with a knack for both dark comedy and harrowing tragedy."– Publishers Weekly
"Bangladeshi author Saad Z Hossain'sDjinn Cityis set both in his home country and the realm of the Djinns. It's a richly evocative adventure about a father and his half-Djinn son searching for one another – a sort of dark-fantasy Finding Nemo, as charming and funny as it is inventive and strange."– One of The Guardian's Best Fantasy Books of the Year
A Full Account
The first persistent conviction of Indelbed's life was that he was poor. This was not in itself a surprising observation, for he was surrounded by the poor in a country notorious for being poor. It would have been a statistical aberration had he not been poor. The problem was that Indelbed could see certain signs of incongruity in his family's particular brand of poverty, minute and widely prevalent indicators that: a) they had fallen from grace in some way, and b) his father had been responsible for this calamitous disaster not too far back, for which many members of the extended family still shunned him.
They lived in Wari, in a rambling building whose original outer shape was no longer visible. It had been covered by outgrowths: add-ons, lean-tos, television towers, dish cables, animal shelters, and other superstructures of such fantastical nature that no sane human could discern their purpose. Surrounding buildings had encroached on its airspace. The entire thing was a decrepit, jagged fire trap, one fatuous giant's stomp away from collapse.
For as long as Indelbed could remember, his family had assured him that Wari had at one point been a very fashionable area. Most of these people lived in the actual fashionable areas of Gulshan, Banani, or Baridhara. Some of them lived in the semi-fashionable area of Dhanmondi, which was still much better than Wari.
The gate of the house was an immense work of ironmongery, gently settling to rust. It opened into what had once been a driveway and then a garage, evidence that they—or some progenitor—had at some point owned more than one motor vehicle. The approach to the house must have been spacious too, matching the ambitious width of the gate, but steady encroachment by shops, habitations, and boundary walls had narrowed the street into a choke point only several feet wide, capable of allowing, at most, the egress of the pernicious three-wheeler baby taxis. No car could ever squeeze through the gate now. When Indelbed visited relatives in other parts of town and they deigned to drop him off, their cars had to park at the mouth of the alley and let him down on foot, right next to an open drain.
This was humiliating enough, although in hindsight it was perhaps a blessing that his cousins did not have to approach the house and perhaps meet his father by accident. Indelbed's dad was a perfect adornment to the house: an eccentric drunkard so incoherent with rage that he was often bereft of speech altogether. In moments of lucidity he expounded on the misfortunes plaguing his life, one of which was Indelbed, although to be fair most times he was classified only as a minor irritant.
There seemed to be some implacable, invisible doom stalking Indelbed's father. He had started life with all the trappings of wealth and success, and in a few short decades he had squandered everything. This too had a story. The house in Wari had once been the principal residence of some important ancestor. This gentleman, apparently anticipating the arrival of Indelbed's father, had left his property entailed to the male line in a complicated legal maneuver, which meant that it could never be sold, leased, mortgaged, developed, or gambled; in short, it was absolutely useless to them in any form other than in its primary function, as a roof with four walls.
Even though it was Wari, the house and grounds together constituted such a large square footage that they could easily have repaired their fortunes had they been able to sell it. Often his father lamented this very point. If only. Instead, they were stuck with the care of this humiliating pile, with walls salt-encrusted from damp, the roof seeping water, the floors a treacherous mosaic, and all the woodwork so rotten that even the termites had decamped. It was, however, his home, and in the solitary games of his imagination, each nook and crevice contained a world filled with adventure, each room a castle, each hallway a jungle trail.
Indelbed's father was one Dr. Kaikobad. In the bewildering tradition of his family, his father also had another and completely unrelated name, which was Dr. B. C. Khan Rahman. The custom was to have a Muslim name and then an eccentric one, and this accounted for Indelbed's own current misfortune, for his father, completely hammered on the eve of his birth, had simply named him Indelbed, entirely forgetting to give him a proper name.
Possibly the larger misfortune was that Indelbed's mother had died in childbirth. Indelbed sometimes fantasized that she had instead taken the opportunity of childbirth to escape, perhaps by the back door. "Death by Indelbed." This was the official cause written on the death certificate, scrawled in Dr. Kaikobad's own hand.
In any case, it wasn't easy going around without a proper name. By the time the Doctor had sobered up, the birth certificate had already been issued. Kaikobad refused to rectify the error, apparently overcome with grief. He had subsequently proceeded to combat this grief with bottles of dubious vintage for the next decade.
Thus this branch of the Khan Rahman family remained at two. The Doctor never married again, perhaps from fear of being saddled with a second Indelbed. Indelbed had tried to procure siblings through purchase, yet had failed, not the least because he had very little money. The two children he had managed to entice as far as the living room were scared off by the Doctor, whose charming habits included roaming the halls in his dressing gown with a full-length British cavalry saber in his hand.
Indelbed's great-grandfather had apparently killed a British cavalry officer in Calcutta during the Great Mutiny, taking both his head as well as his sword. The sword was still in good condition. The head had been pickled in a jar, and although it was still resident among the family heirlooms and given pride of place on a center table, it was not possible to verify now whether it was in fact a British cavalry officer's skull or just an ordinary local makeweight.
Indelbed, for this and many other reasons, did not receive visitors at home.
His father had, once upon a time, been very well educated. The doctorate was real. He was a physician as well as a PhD in mathematics, with a near-genius IQ. However, the drink prevented him from practicing medicine, and higher mathematics had fled his mind upon the death of his wife. Indelbed's uncles always said that the Doctor was living life in reverse. He had started out with everything and gradually lost it all. Whiskey had been helpful in this regard, and in line with his reversal of fortune. His first drink had apparently been a priceless single malt stolen from a cache hidden by his father, who had been a well-respected judge. He had meandered through Johnnie Walker Black Label, then Red Label, and finally just anything foreign. Of late, the Doctor was lucky to drink something that contained ethanol. Quantity, in fact, had replaced any sense of taste he had previously been burdened with.
The Doctor had his first drink at twelve P.M., as a sort of hair of the dog. Lunch was a fluid affair depending on finances, but some kind of meal was served any time between one and three by the ancient butler. This gentleman claimed to be a butler (he pronounced the word but-loo) but had in fact been the old driver's son, from that ancestral time when there had been cars in the driveway. Butloo had vague ideas about the dignity of his station, dimly remembered from back when his father had served in a more prosperous home.
After serving lunch, Butloo would proudly bring out a silver tray with glass and water. The tray was one of those heirloom pieces that, inexplicably, the Doctor had never sold. Possibly because it was his drinks tray and made whatever slop he happened to be ingesting more palatable. More likely, it was because Butloo jealously guarded this prized possession, the sole remnant of a more romantic age and his badge of identity, without which his claims of being a gentleman's gentleman would be scorned out of hand by the other domestics.
Regardless of its undoubted psychological value, no one in the house knew how to polish silver (not that there was any money to buy polish). So the tray was tarnished black, yet still managed to gleam in a reproachful way whenever it was brought out.
After the post-lunch drink, the Doctor often dozed off for a while or retired to his "study," a roomful of rotting, barely legible books, the good ones having been sold off long ago. After his nap it was time for the evening drink, which coincided with the depressing dusk of Wari, which coincided with Butloo using dhup throughout the house to drive out mosquitoes. Dhup was a treatment of coconut fiber, which could be burned with coal to create a fume noxious to both humans and mosquitoes. The theory was that humans could withstand the poisoning longer than mosquitoes and thus emerge victorious.
After this, the drinking resumed at a rapid pace and continued until the bottles were finished or the Doctor passed out. Dinner again was a fluid affair in the middle of the drinking, served anywhere between eight and eleven P.M., or not at all, depending on the vagaries of the kitchen.
Butloo was accompanied by a half-mad, enormously fat maid, who served as both housekeeper-chambermaid and cook. She contrived to feed the four of them plus the guard at the gate with whatever pittance the Doctor gave her every week for grocery shopping. Food at the Khan Rahman household was a taboo subject. Each of the dishes had a grandiose name according to ancient family recipes—another clue to their august past. Indelbed had made discreet inquiries and found that none of his neighbors had any fancy ancestral recipes. What they did have in more abundance was actual food.
Indelbed frequently thought that the availability of food ought actually to be the most important part of the whole dining experience, but to voice any traitorous thoughts toward anything of ancestral value was to go deeply against the family, many of whom already seemed to hate him. The recipes called for the flinging around of many expensive ingredients, such as ghee, saffron, and gold leaf. In fact they also called for semi-expensive ingredients, such as meat and fish, which were also a problem. The cook had been forced to replace or drop so many parts from each vaunted recipe that the dishes no longer resembled anything edible at all.
Take the ghono dal, for example: ancestrally, a mixture of lentils thick enough to stand up straight on a plate, adorned with all manner of fried onions, molten ghee, and candied ginger; the Doctor's version resembled muddy water with three-day-old beans, which coated the rice with a tired slime. Thus they maintained a mythical bill of fare for dinner each night, where Butloo was obliged to recite a spurious number of items being served, which the Doctor would decline to eat before they got down to their rice and dal.
Indelbed didn't mind this so much, since he wasn't a big eater anyway. Nor was he upset about his father's refusal to buy him clothes, since he inevitably received all the hand-me-downs from the vast horde of second and third cousins of the clan. Taking pity on Indelbed was a sort of favorite pastime, and although it chafed a bit, he had to admit that most of the clothes were of good quality, on the higher end of the comparative scale of sartorial brilliance in his part of Wari. He was skinny so the clothes never fit right, and he had actually never had the experience of walking into a store to buy something just for himself, but he had seen it done plenty of times when following around various older cousins. Not being blessed with vanity, he couldn't really see what the fuss was about.
The one real thing he hated about his father was his obdurate views on schooling. At the age of six, Indelbed had realized that all the neighborhood kids were going someplace in neat blue-and-white uniforms. When charged, his father had no adequate response other than declaring that he was not about to throw away a parcel of money trying to educate a six-year-old.
As time went by, however, Indelbed became increasingly anxious. Although all his neighborhood friends proclaimed him enormously lucky for somehow avoiding the traumatic experience of school, he was smart enough to realize that this was going to be a major problem.
"I wish I could go," he said sadly one day to Butloo, his confidant and advisor. "What do you think they do there all day?"
"I never went to school, Choto Sahib."
"What did you do then?" Indelbed asked, momentarily distracted.
"I came from the village straight over here when I was a little older than you. My father worked here then. I used to run errands for your grandfather. Judge Sahib, they called him. Everyone in the neighborhood knew him. They used to come all hours of the day to get his opinion on things."
"Must have been nice," Indelbed said. "But I'm sure the Judge went to school!"
"Don't worry. Those dullards at the school don't know half as much as your father," Butloo said. "You're better off without them. God knows what upside-down things they are teaching over there."
"You think my father knows anything?" Indelbed asked dubiously.
"Dr. Sahib was the best student!" Butloo said. "Didn't he win awards when he was young? Didn't he go to the best universities abroad? He was the youngest doctor in the city. Judge Sahib was so proud of him."
Two years rolled by. His father, under increasing pressure from Indelbed, declared that he was going to homeschool him. This entailed sitting down at some unspecified hour during the day and receiving very garbled lessons from the Doctor, who himself had attended schools in Dhaka, Karachi, and finally England. To be fair, Indelbed could see that his father was trying to help. Under the fugue of cheap alcohol there remained some semblance of intellect, enough, actually, to impart a very creditable amount of math, history, philosophy, and physics. He was taught to read the old-fashioned way, by the twin pillars of memorization and the rod. Any mistakes were punished with a whack across the shoulders.
This shameful secret of non-schooling continued for a few years, until it dawned on the family that ten-year-old Indelbed was not attending any kind of institution at all. It was his cousin Rais who first brought this to light, and it is here the saga of Indelbed really begins.