Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn: A Steampunk Faerie Tale by Dantelle Ackley-McPail and Day Al-Mohamed. ★★★
As you should be able to tell from the title, Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn is a steampunk retelling of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, with some magic thrown in. From the synopsis: “In England, far from his desert home, Ali bin-Massoud serves as apprentice to the famed Charles Babbage. One night a mysterious box is delivered by a clockwork falcon and Ali’s world is never the same again. Heartache, danger, and thieves mark his journey as Ali is summoned home at the death of his father.”
I’ve read short story retellings of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves before, but this was the first novel length re imagining of the tale that I’ve encountered. I thought it did some things well. I liked the use of mechanisms and magic, for one. The historical settings were well drawn. The characterization of Ali was good. However, Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn left me unsatisfied in a lot of ways.
The first was that I felt the book had a very slow start. The first half of the novel is mostly Ali being attacked by random, cardboard cut out bad guys and being saved by a mechanical eagle. Part of this time, he’s traveling from England to Arabia. The book doesn’t really get interesting until half way through when he actually gets back home and discovers the cave with the treasure. I definitely think that some of the beginning sections could have been cut or condensed. Better characterization when it comes to the villains is also needed. They were all utterly disposable and forgettable, and I had a hard time keeping them straight.
I mentioned that I liked the use of magic, but I actually would like to know more about it, especially when it comes to the history of the djinn. I felt like there were a lot of elements that were introduced here that were never fully explored. Additionally, there were some unanswered questions about the clockwork eagle. I’m also not wholly comfortable with the power dynamics of the relationship between Ali and the imprisoned djinn. I think the focus was supposed to be on how he’s setting her free, but he’s still the one with the power to do so in the first place. There’s too much of a master slave dynamic for my liking.
Additionally, there was some strangeness in relation to the ending. It felt a lot like deus ex machina, and I would have liked a better explanation.
Finally, I don’t know if it was just a problem with my ebook format, but the novel didn’t include any spaces or ways to mark POV shifts, even when it was jumping between characters in England and Arabia. It was really disorienting to rind myself in England in one paragraph and someplace completely different the next.
Overall, I’m not sure if I would recommend Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn. If you really like fairy tale retellings or want to read steampunk set outside Europe, I might cautiously recommend it.