HomeAll postsDreaming of Djinn edited by Liz Grzyb

Dreaming of Djinn edited by Liz Grzyb

Dreaming of Djinn

a review by Nalini Haynes

Dreaming of Djinn is an anthology of short stories by Australian authors inspired by Western mythology of Middle Eastern culture and tales. The tales are as diverse in content and style as the authors themselves.

Dreaming of Djinn is an anthology of stories from authors with very different styles, all with a Middle-Eastern flavour: some Persian, some Ottoman and one British Indian. The collection works because the stories are short, the reader moves on without becoming attached to a particular style or sub-genre of story.

If I didn’t have to write this review I’d just imagine myself sitting on a Persian carpet, queue pipes and tabla (Egyptian drums), exotic incense and fly away with the authors whose goal is to transport us to other worlds. I mostly enjoyed Dreaming of Djinn and recommend it to everyone who loves tales of Arabian Nights.

‘Shadow Dancer’ by Marilag Angway

Dreaming of Djinn opens with ‘Shadow Dancer’, a story of a would-be belly dancer assigned to Desha for instruction, brought to Desha by a servant acting on behalf of the king.

Desha objects to the European appearance of the girl. Later Desha says she could distract people from Desha’s light-coloured eyes; anyone who has studied traditional belly dancing knows belly dancers call attention to their eyes.

In spite of this mistake and mistakenly anticipating a focus on belly dancing after the editor’s introduction, this story left me wanting more.

In the Afterword Marilag said:

…I believe the true beginning is when slave-girl Morgiana enters the scene in order to save him from the vengeful King of Thieves and his menacing Forty. This, to me, is where the inspiration for “Shadow Dancer” emerged…behind this lucky thief stands a beautiful, clever, dangerous slave girl, whose name is often forgotten amongst the pages of the folktale.

This threw me: my memory of Ali Baba is that all the characters were Persian. Now I’m wondering if my memory is faulty or if the stories have been Westernised. The question arises: how much of our understanding of Middle Eastern tales is part of Western mythology?

‘Parvaz’ by Charlotte Nash

Next up is ‘Parvaz’; a mystery unfolding full of peril, but who is at risk? Engaging and a quick read.

‘The Dancer of Smoke’ by Joshua Gage

‘The Dancer of Smoke’ is a classic fable relocated into a Middle Eastern setting. The author credits a Chinese myth for the original tale but Middle Eastern fables probably include similar stories. This tale fits well in this anthology although the end of the story lacked the fable-formula ending.

‘The Dancer’ is a captivating tale nonetheless.

 ‘The Belly Dancing Crimes of Ms Sahara Desserts’ by Angela Rega

Angela Rega has obviously been a belly dancer: her descriptions of moves and working as a belly dancer are so concrete.

Dancing on table tops and tabouli between your toes though – EEW! Hygiene, people! Dancing in restaurants where people put money in your hip-belt? That’s a CERTAIN KIND of establishment. Not family-friendly. Yet very real as told in this story.

Sahara Desserts is ensnared in a mythic quest to set her mentor to rest. When not focusing on belly dancing, this story is very dream-like: people’s behaviour and sequences of events are surreal.

‘On A Crooked Leg Lightly’ by Alan Baxter

Amalia is a princess with an acquired disability: one arm and one leg were broken when she was three years old and haven’t healed properly. In this story, Baxter refrains from the cliché of healing the cripple with magic, yay! Instead Amalia has depth of character that surprised me.

I was a little concerned that the writing swung from emphasising a severe disability to downplaying it as nearly non-existent by the end, but an interesting story nonetheless.

‘The Saint George Hotel’ by Thoraiya Dyer

Baasim is a backpack bomber heading for his target before he wakes up in another time and another place with the opportunity to redeem himself. I have concerns about this one because of cultural appropriation issues, especially as the story does the fanatic bomber thing then crosses faiths – this could offend Muslims.

‘The Sultan’s Debt’ by Barb Siples

Hadid flees carnage in the court of his father, the Sultan, with Azad, Hadid’s loyal bodyguard. Hadid is manipulative and deceitful, willing to do or say anything to get his own way. Barb squeezes Hadid’s hero’s journey into this short story that resonates with Western understanding of Middle Eastern folklore, My only reservation was that Azad seemed a bit artificial, manipulated by the puppet master to meet the needs of Hadid’s journey.

‘Street Dancer’ by Pia Van Ravestein

Thoren and Jeremiah are a couple with conflicting desires; Thoren wants to care for Jeremiah while Jeremiah wants to perform as a belly dancer and cloud his mind with drugs. This story held up until the end when I RAGED. no, No, NO.

I get the conflicting agendas, I get couples pulling in different directions. I don’t get the end of this story.

‘Harmony Thicket and the Persian Shoes’ by Havva Murat

The name ‘Harmony Thicket’ reminded me of Lemony Snickett so this story got off to a shaky start. This is a classic tale – European, Russian, whatever – retold in an Australian setting with Persian shoes. After the shaky start I got into the story and wanted a bit more at the end.

‘The Green Rose’ by Cherith Baldry

This is a Middle Eastern-flavoured moral story about political intrigue featuring classic literature techniques like parallelism. Sabir’s green rose is symbolic; Sabir and I cared more deeply and more consistently about the rose than the people in this story.

‘Oleander: An Ottoman Tale’ by Anthony Panegyres

Chrisaphina lives in a hostile world where her father’s business is failing and she must marry to survive off the streets. Her brother was lost to the Janissary corps; every street urchin reminds her of him. Chrisaphina’s father wants to marry her to a Muslim while she imagines herself in love with a stranger who rides by daily. A djinn imbues the story with mystery.

I really liked the end. Nicely done.

‘A Dash of Djinn and Tonic’ by D C White

Set in British India, starring a pompous Colonel Watson and a nervous Lieutenant Kirk. (Kirk? Really? NO.) They set off to investigate a complaint about an ifrit (evil spirit).

Ambushed while riding their elephant in panniers (baskets on either side), the elephant stands stock still while being shot at. Kirk and Watson hide beneath their apparently stupid elephant while swinging the panniers around so the baskets are now beneath the elephant’s belly but still upright. As you do.

They get back in the panniers. Underneath the elephant’s belly. And ride the elephant that way. As you do.

Shooting an orange so it acts like a carrot on a stick for the elephant, who chases it. As elephants do and they never bolt when someone is firing a gun beneath their bellies at fruit between their legs.

I reread this portion a few times because I COULD NOT believe it.


This is a COMEDY. It just took some time to get moving.

I’m not much of a fan of surrealistic comedy but the rest of the story fits within the Australian view of Middle Eastern folklore, including finding Ali Baba’s cave and the three wishes, cue hilarity. Not exactly laugh out loud – I’m a tough audience when reading – but an enjoyable romp.

‘Romance of the Arrow Girl’ by Richard Harland

This is no young adult story; this is a story of love and pride and the price one pays for choices. Chilling.

‘Djinni Djinni Dream Dream’ by Jetse de Vries

Jamal is a test subject for an experiment set in the far distant future who uses virtual reality to explore bygone cultures and create his own djinn.

This was one of the less satisfying tales as it felt somewhat surreal, it didn’t comply with the rules of Middle Eastern folk lore and the ending was weak. Others who enjoy the cross-over between science fiction and fantasy may disagree.

‘Silver, Sharp As Silk’ by Dan Rabarts

This story opens with a djinn as a first person point of view character then promptly –without so much as a line break – jumps to a conversation between two men, Ahmed and a merchant.

I was thrown. Is the djinn present? Do the men know he’s there? Apparently not.

Also Ahmed is a merchant; initially I thought Ahmed isn’t a merchant because the other man is called by his profession, seemingly implying that only one of them is a merchant.

The djinn jumps back into the story as a first person character, before changing to a third-person character from Ahmed’s point of view.

Then the djinn is back as first person. Oops, now he’s third person again.

The djinn uses the passive voice to narrate history against which he should be raging; the passive voice robs his story of emotion.

The run-on sentences in this story make my fingers itch to pull out that lethal weapon, the editor’s red pen, well before Ahmed abuses the sacred Bedouin ritual of hospitality. By the time Ahmed blackmails the ifrit into accepting the salt to protect Ahmed, I felt like hurling the book across the room. If it was paper and not my laptop, I may well have committed a heinous crime against a book.

At least the end of the tale fitted the genre of traditional fables even though the Bedouin ritual of hospitality is abused beyond recognition.

‘The Pearl Flower Harvest’ by Jenny Schwartz

Reba Django is apparently no relation to Django Unchained although there may be slight similarities in the story.

Ethan, a personal assistant to a billionaire, comes looking for a powerful talisman; not used to being refused and being very well prepared, he uses Jay, Reba’s brother, as a hostage until Reba gives Ethan that which his evil heart desires.

Reba traffics in candles to commune with djinn but there are more than one kind. The kind Reba creates has side effects Ethan cannot anticipate.

99% of this story was great. The last few paragraphs threw me: Jenny Schwartz needed to add a bit more to the story to justify the very end. Explore the conflict and motivation to explain the end then I’d be content. Having said that, I could see justification for the end, it just felt… a bit inconsistent character-wise. Perhaps that omission of exploration is a good thing in that the reader has to think, ponder the change in the character and potential motivating factors.

Either way, it works as a short story.

‘The Quiet Realm of the Dark Queen’ by Jenny Blackford

A retelling of a tale told in mythology the world over, Jenny tells the Middle Eastern version of Orpheus, Persephone and the Underworld. I’ve never read a Middle Eastern version of this tale before; I enjoyed this one.

‘The Oblivion Box’ by Faith Mudge

Shaya is imprisoned in a supernatural dungeon. Gradually we learn who Shaya is and how she came to be imprisoned through her developing relationship with her gaoler. Although I’ve read other stories along similar lines I enjoyed this one.

There’s more than a little social comment in this story, which is not quite a morality tale. This was a good story to finish on.

Book Design

More care could have been taken with the book design. Admittedly I received the PDF version but I believe Ticonderoga Publications sells eBooks so electronic book design is relevant to this review.

Some words are unnecessarily hyphenated during a line like this:

“She laughs again. “You are trapped in that form, rukh, and I am immor-tal. You cannot [line ends]
hurt me.” [bold added for emphasis]

The title for the second story is orphaned at the bottom of the page featuring the afterword for the previous story, with the beginning of the second story on a separate page. This kind of error occurs periodically.

Small details affect the overall presentation of a book; hopefully the eVersions will be polished.

Cultural Appropriation

I have concerns about cultural appropriation yet without ‘straight white authors’ writing other characters there is too little diversity in our literature. I am concerned that the overt inclusion of gay characters seemed a little ‘try-hard’ at times. Where does the balance lie? I’m not sure. If you’re in the LGBT community and don’t mind straight people writing gay characters then you’re going to LOVE Dreaming of Djinn!

I have concerns about cultural misappropriation when folklore is appropriated, especially when it is subverted; do we have the right? Does this reek of hipsters appropriating African American ghetto culture? I would feel more comfortable about the stories that deliberately subverted acquired folklore tropes if I knew the people groups concerned are okay with this.

In conclusion

Like an ouroboros, this essay ends at the beginning. The following paragraphs are included here because without them this essay has no conclusion. They’re also in the introduction to cater for those who won’t read the 2000-ish word essay.

Dreaming of Djinn is an anthology of stories from authors with very different styles, all with a Middle-Eastern flavour: some Persian, some Ottoman and one British Indian. The collection works because the stories are short, the reader moves on without becoming attached to a particular style or sub-genre of story.

If I didn’t have to write this review I’d just imagine myself sitting on a Persian carpet, queue pipes and tablas (Egyptian drums), exotic incense and fly away with the authors whose goal is to transport us to other worlds. I mostly enjoyed Dreaming of Djinn and recommend it to everyone who loves tales of Arabian Nights.

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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