this review cross-posted from On a Pale Star: A Book Blog for Speculative Fiction
The blurb, from the back of the book:
A stolen hookah, a spiritual underworld, and a genie on the run change the lives of five strangers forever on the streets of the Middle East’s largest metropolis.
Cairo interweaves the fates of a drug runner, a down-on-his-luck journalist, an American expatriate, a troubled young student, and an Israeli soldier as they race through the bustling present-day Cairo to find an artifact of unimaginable power, one protected by a dignified jinn and sought by a wrathful gangster-magician. But the vastness of Africa’s legendary City of Victory extends into a spiritual realm—the Undernile—and even darker powers lurk there…
Cairo opens with a man telling a story. I’m a bit of a sucker for storytellers, so honestly, that was all it took to hook me into the graphic novel. Of course, it helps that the story he’s telling starts with “So today, I hit one of those stoned camels with my truck.”
I’ve never thought of camels being stoned before, or of drug runners crashing into them while trying to smuggle drugs into Israel…but now I have, and it makes perfect sense. Cairo is like that; full of situations I haven’t thought of before, but that slot right into reality perfectly, even if it’s jinn and the Undernile we’re talking about.
Ashraf is, I think, the perfect introductory character. He’s a drug runner, unrepentant about it, but knowing he ought to walk away. As he sits smoking with a hookah, telling his mother about his day, you get a feel for his personality, and when the scene pans out and Ashraf gets up to leave and you realize that he’s been talking to her grave, Ashraf suddenly has depth.
The story of his day leads to the next character we meet, an injured Israeli soldier who was found in the desert by a group of Bedouin heading into Cairo. When Tova wakes up in their care, she’s grateful they cared for her. When she realizes where they are headed, her response is an appropriate “fuck.”
Cairo is like this—one person’s story blends with another until we’ve met all five. Kate and Shaheed meet on a plane ride from the U.S. to Cairo; pretty soon we as readers realize that Kate is an idealistic middle-class young woman and it’s not hard to make a leap to “naïve” as she talks to Shaheed. Shaheed, though, is less transparent and it’s not until the narration follows him more closely that you realize that he’s very troubled, indeed.
Soon we find that Ashraf knows a journalist, Ali… and then Ali meets Kate, and Shaheed meets (and gets conned by) Ashraf, who has a run in with Tova. And like that, five disparate characters are connected and Wilson manages to make it feel completely natural. It would’ve been easy for this to feel contrived, so I’m impressed at how well orchestrated this string of meetings was.
The plot is pushed forward by Ashraf’s drug-running history coming back to bite him in the butt and a jinni (in, and then not in, a hookah). It’s a fantastic blend of the region’s mythology and religion with modern day Cairo. Shams, the jinn, is not at all the comedic blue guy from a Disney movie. He’s motivated, earnest, and a teacher–an example of a benevolent jinni.
Shams, benevolent being that he is, helps these five—one in particular—reach their potential. At one point in the story, he tells Shaheed that he manipulates probabilities, rather than creating items or events from scratch. With the cast he had to work with, I’m inclined to think that guiding this group might have been a bit like herding cats. They each have free-will, and own their own choices, but with some gentle and un-subtle nudges from Shams, they learn that they can choose differently than they have in the past. The message for readers isn’t subtle, but I think that’s okay. Sometimes we need clue-by-fours to smack us over the head with an idea, particularly a worthy one.
Wilson’s story is beautifully complimented by Perker’s art. The characters and setting are rendered beautifully, the panels accenting and expanding the text to make the entire story rich and nuanced. If you haven’t gathered by now, Cairo is not stereotypical comic book/super hero fair. There are no spandex or leather-encased vigilantes here, just excellently drawn men and women and a jinni who want more from life than what they’ve already experienced.
If you get the chance to read Cairo, do. It’s well worth your time.