If I keep letting myself get distracted like this, I don’t have a hope in hell of finishing my jaunt through the 2016 Hugo categories before the voting deadline. In my defense, the Android Instapaper app makes it impossible to tell exactly how long a piece of text is before I start it. So when, as an amuse bouche between bouts of novel-reading, I tapped on Usman Malik’s novella The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn, I had no idea it was going to quite so substantial a read. If I’m to believe its entry in Amazon’s Kindle store, it’s only supposed to be the equivalent of 32 paper pages. Which, just by gut feel, is an underestimate by about a factor of two.
Admittedly, I also felt a bit displaced and distracted by my reading conditions last night; sat in a gradually darkening room, windows open, incessant rain hissing away every other sound. just so taken in by the story and the circumstances I was reading in. Yes, a summer night darkness can take me by surprise, but that’s what you get for growing up well north of the arctic circle. The otherworldly environment left me primed for the way Malik starts The Pauper Prince, lulling both his protagonist Salman and the reader. Anyone who’s ever been read to as a child — or indeed, read a story where a child is being told a story — will feel they know where this is heading. All expectations are quite rudely dispelled before that familiar story-within-the-story has even gotten started, though.
Instead of a bedtime fable, what follows is Salman’s attempt to solve his quarter-life crisis by exploring his roots. It’s not an unfamiliar narrative to children of immigrants, or to those of us with tenuous connections to our families. Malik isn’t content to make this only about heritage, though. Salman’s crisis is tied not only into a strained relationship with his parents, but also with his career and a long-term relationship teetering on the edge between “’till death do us part” and “the one that got away”. It’s a spot-on depiction of that perfect storm which happens when a person reaches that point where they’ve finally lost sight of adolescence, and every choice they make takes on an air of finality.
By pivoting from the fantastic into the mundane and back into the fantastic again, Malik is able to imbue both strains with a sharp tang of the unexpected. The final turn is not so much back into a fable, as it is a metaphysical (or mythological, depending on how you squint) flight of fancy. He uses the titular spirit to talk both about the origin of sentience and of the uneasy relationship many a believer has with fate and determinism. All this done in an increasingly rapturous fashion, which I have to admit I had trouble following at times. Not because it was unnecessarily complex, but rather because — like with the harder kinds of science fiction — the parts of my brain needed to understand these things are woefully out of shape.
If all the above waffle doesn’t sound enticing, the simplest way I can sell The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn goes thus: Even though Malik breaks with the trope early on, no matter how far afield his tale strays, it retains the feeling it evokes right at the start. Being small, sat on a lap, lost in a story.
Novellas, man. They’re flipping awesome. Also, even if this can be read for free at Tor.com, I encourage you to fork out the digital purchase price (less than two of your American dollars in the Kindle store). That way, you get a formatted ebook. And if that means nothing to you, you’re still supporting the author and his publisher.