Linda Davies should think twice before putting pen to paper. After Sea Djinn, her first children’s book in which the hero’s parents were kidnapped at sea, life imitated art when she and her husband were abducted for real by the Iranian navy. Then, at the recent unveiling of Fire Djinn, a shamal threatened to scupper the launch party.
‘I really do feel I’m conjuring something here,’ laughs the banker-turned-author. ‘It was sunny with clouds dotted around, I was busy signing books and then someone shouted “Look!”
We glanced up to see this black force, this shamal, blowing across the sea. It was so powerful, it blew the books over, blew the stands over, then it was gone. But the minute I got the mike in my hand, did the “Hello, how is everyone” etc, the shamal came back. It was weird and quite scary, especially as I’m writing Storm Djinn (the third in the series) at the moment.’
Not quite as dramatic as her two weeks held captive by the Iranian forces, but a little alarming nonetheless. ‘Interpret it how you like, but it is quite bizarre, quite spooky.
It makes me a little wary, I suppose,’ she says. Pronounced like the other kind of spirit (the one that goes down well with a splash of tonic), djinn are supernatural beings alluded to in both the Bible and the Quran. ‘They are meant to be mischievous and slightly antagonistic, and they bitterly resent any human interference or wrong- doings. They’re below the level of angels, so they’re not demonic. Some can be evil, some can be good and they are shape-shifters, so they can transform into humans, animals or the weather. They can transform into a shamal.’
It’s such insights into Middle Eastern mythology which make the Djinn book series so appealing. Featuring Dubai expat Finn Kennedy, these romping fantasies are well grounded in the day-to-day happenings of Dubai. Whether it’s regional folklore and spooky weather, or the familiar-sounding Jumeirah Academy of Music (JAM) and picking up essential supplies at Park ‘n Shop, readers can effortlessly transport themselves into Finn’s adventurous world.
‘I think children can identify with the characters because it could easily be them,’ says Davies, who has also written several adult financial crime novels based on her former career in the City. ‘They’re seeing the public beach, walking past the fisherman’s village, going into Park ‘n Shop – they’re seeing the characters doing the things that they do, and it makes the books more real to them.’
Davies has also successfully honed in on some of Dubai’s more quirky contrasts: desert-loving hippie types are mentioned alongside bling-clad high-flyers, while the city’s determined ‘can-do’ attitude is explored along with its competitive streak.
‘Dubai is a little like gold-rush California: there’s this attitude that you can do anything you want here. I love that, but there’s the other side to aspiration where it goes too far,’ says the mum of three. Pushy parents – we’ve all encountered them – get short shrift. ‘There is an element of social satire in the book, like the mum who worries about the speck of fluff on her son’s trousers while he’s battling evil djinn in the background and having all these adventures,’ she says.
Yes, the Djinn books are slightly rebellious in tone, but they also appeal to kids’ fierce sense of justice, and don’t worry, the baddie will get his comeuppance. ‘I have a strong streak of that in me. I want to see the evil-doers caught and appropriately punished,’ says Davies. ‘Writing a book, you can administer justice as you see fit. Children really aspire to that, and they’re gratified to see a world where justice works. They’re very conscious of what’s fair and unfair.’
In fact, her own children, Hugh (10), Tom (8) and Lara (4), are her best critics. ‘I get my husband to read the books aloud to the boys, and I sit opposite them and watch their faces. They’ve never looked bored, thank goodness, but I can see what really works. They’ll say, “Mummy, he wouldn’t say that in front of the taxi driver in case he heard!” They also come up with ideas and I get to test out some of my own. For example I gave the characters one magical power – astral travel – and I almost took it out because I wasn’t sure if I could make it believable. The children were vehemently opposed to that.’
Although different in many ways, the books have been described as ‘Dubai’s Harry Potter’, a comparison Davies is more than happy with: ‘I think it’s wonderful – I love Harry Potter and JK Rowling. It’s a way of letting children know it’s the story of a magical hero set in the Middle East.’
Like Harry Potter, there’ll be more books to come. Davies has already started work on Storm Djinn and says there’ll definitely be a fourth and possibly a fifth in the series, but she’s not divulging any details. Meanwhile, she’s in talks to turn Sea Djinn into a movie: a big-budget adventure blockbuster set in the Middle East that would show the sea and the desert as well as the mythology, beauty, and quirkiness of the region.
Fire Djinn is published by Jerboa and available from Magrudy’s for Dhs56.