A lot of reviews of Saad Z. Hossain’s Djinn City say it resists classification, and I really agree – it’s ostensibly a scifi/fantasty novel, and definitely starts out as one. Indelbed is a young boy in Dhaka, from a prominent family line fallen into poverty, with an alcoholic father and a mother who died in childbirth. His lonely existence is changed when his father falls into a coma that is not what it seems, and Indelbed discovers the magical parallel world of the djinn – ancient, powerful beings with magical powers.
However, this is not a classic “hero’s quest” – the djinn are litigious, vain, and caught up in their own political dramas, and Indelbed ends up abandoned in a dungeon for most of the book. Most of the action shifts to his older cousin Rais, who learns the levers of djinn bureaucracy and status trading, and then works the system to try and find answers about his family, and to stop one bored djinn from unleashing tsunamis to wipe the Bengal Delta clear of humans on a whim.
Don’t let the magical setting fool you, this is pretty heavy stuff – murders, assaults, betrayal, being broken (physically and mentally) to survive, the shock of accidental death, and a deep lore. My one quibble is that is absolutely sets you up for a sequel more than it wraps the plot, but it also means I’ll be looking for the sequel.
Hossain bases much of his writing on djinns, which started as pre-Islamic Arabian myths, then were incorporated and spread through Islam into the stories of countries like Bangladesh. He writes in English, and writes in a way that is accessible to Westerners, but not in a way that exoticizes his own country and culture to pander to that audience. There’s an air of a South Asian Neil Gaiman about his writing.
There’s a great interview with Hossain from last year in Dhaka on djinns, using Asian mythology in his writing instead of the Norse mythology that Western fantasy is based on (see: Tolkein), as well as the writing process, and how humans are barely hanging on.