Jinn are everywhere. Every culture has them; they lurk in every literary tradition.
On one hand, it makes collecting a list of “jinn” reading an impossible challenge—there’s simply no way to represent all the ways in which the jinn appear. It is the sort of task that, in a classic story, the feisty protagonist would trick a jinn into solving instead.
On the other hand, the size of the task is so impossible that we needn’t even attempt it. Wherever you are, whatever you read—rest assured that there’s a jinn for you.
So rather than trying to cover the vast range of jinn in books, we’ve selected a few of our very favourites—fiction and non-fiction, old and new, fantastical and literary.
The clear place to start is Saad Hossain’s Escape from Baghdad!, as both of us selected it for Tor.com’s Reviewers’ Choice two years ago. A sign of things to come? A meeting of great minds? Or, given how great the book is, not really a coincidence at all. Hossain’s pulptastic gonzo thriller features a pair of unlikely adventurers in the immediate aftermath of the Iraqi war. Darkly comedic and unsparing, Escape is part Vonnegut, part Heller, part secret history and all something wonderful and new.
And speaking of secret histories: Tim Powers’ Declare is the king of the genre. It is meticulously researched, compelling and as twisty-turny, winding and surprising as only true history could be. In his Cold War thriller, Powers set himself the challenge of incorporating real world events—and then overlaid them with the mysterious “Operation Declare,” an espionage gambit involving supernatural beings (spoilers: the book is on this list of books about jinn…). Powers has the knack of making magic real: systemic, cohesive, compelling; while also never taking away from the supernatural majesty of it all.
Of course, the Arabian Nights are full of jinn stories. But rather than talk about the 1001 stories, maybe take a look at Marina Warner’s incredible dive into the rich global heritage the young storyteller Shahrazade left behind with Stranger Magic: Charmed States and The Arabian Nights. Although once an idealised representation of the “exotic” east, the Arabian Nights are much more than that—even now they are often considered the cornerstone for stories from Islamic mythology. To understand where they came from, and how they became the great influencers they still are, there’s no one better than Warner to analyse the tales. This is not an easy read, but a rewarding one nonetheless.
On a different note is Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, set in turn of the century New York. A female golem, brought to life by a rabbi, and suddenly left alone to her own devices without a “master,” meets a jinn, a creature finally freed from the bonds of a flask he was trapped in by a Bedouin wizard hundreds of years ago. Both are magical, legendary beings, but entirely opposite in nature—the golem is created from earth by man, the jinn from fire by god. But something draws them to each other, something makes them connect with each other in a new world neither truly knows nor entirely understands. It’s a story about immigrant experiences and finding your place in a new world.
Khaled Al Khamissi’s Taxi contains similar themes; a collection of (fictional, but utterly convincing) dialogues with Cairo cabbies. Lauded for its political and sociological insight, it is a collection of perfect, poignant moments – each containing a distinct personality and a glimpse at life on the city’s bustling, quasi-legal streets.
Taxi belongs on this list for dialogue “44,” which casually describes the omnipresence of jinn—even in a modern society. In this dialogue, the cabbie complains that his apartment is infested with particularly irritating jinn. They are ruining his sleep, costing him a fortune, and even threatening his marriage. As the narrator says, “the jinn [are] definitely no joke… they are part of our religion, our history and our folklore.”
These stories came up frequently when we were working on The Djinn Falls in Love. The assurance that the jinn are very much there—not just historically, but now—is commonplace around the world. Taxi may be fiction, but it expresses this belief compellingly and with confidence.
The raucous jinn in Taxi are one end of the spectrum—the glorious, literary jinns of Hoshruba are the other. Muhammad Hussain Jah’s Hoshruba is set in an alternate fantasy land which is destined to be destroyed. Though there may not be any standard jinns in the way we know them (made of fire, living parallel to us, etc), many of the strange beings in Hoshruba have otherworldly jinn-like powers. It’s safe to say that they can be collectively compared to the jinn—particularly the vengeful female ones whose fury is unstoppable. Surkh Mu Wonder-Mane, with her hair full of stars that land as comets, Queen Mahrukh whose battle arsenal includes the ability to cause armies to lose their minds, and Princess Sharara whose hurled coconuts explode into flame throwing snakes. It’s an amazing tale of shapeshifters and beings in a world that exists alongside ours, but not in harmony.
Just in this short list, you can see the variety of jinn stories. They’re just like us… except where they aren’t. And they’re terrifying fiery monsters… except when they aren’t. They’re complicated and paradoxical, cowardly and courageous, romantic and reasonable. They’re represented in myths and legends from around the world; stories throughout history. Omnipresent, but strangely secretive… it almost makes you think…
Top image: Aladdin (1992)
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.