Your Wish Is My Command by Deena Mohamed review – a spellbinding fantasy from Egypt

The three bottles sit in a cushioned box behind the instant noodles and cold drinks on offer at Shokry’s Cairo convenience stall, their ornate script and stamp of origin – “1954, Italia” – indicating something special. These are “first-class” wishes, the finest money can buy, capable of curing disease, creating great riches or bringing dinosaurs to life. So why has no one bought them yet?

The buzz around Deena Mohamed has been growing since 2013 when, aged 18, she started posting a bold and funny webcomic called Qahera about a “hijabi superhero” who clashes with everyone from hypocritical elders to western feminists. Her ambitious debut graphic novel will set her stock still higher. Published in Egypt in three volumes between 2017 and 2021, it has been translated by Mohamed herself and collected in one chunky English-language hardback. Read from right to left like the Arabic original, this compelling urban fantasy sees three regulars to Shokry’s stall grapple with the implications of their wish-making.

In this world, magical wishes have existed for centuries. Sensibly, Mohamed doesn’t dig too deeply into their workings, instead exploring the transformations they offer and a history that has – predictably enough – been written by the powerful. Initially, even in “wish-rich” regions such as north Africa and the Middle East, the use of wishes was limited. Then the empires of Europe worked out a way to extract, manage and store them in bottles. Today, businesses, governments and wealthy citizens monopolise the best wishes for everything from defence projects to flying Porsches, leaving “third-class” wishes to ordinary folk.

They are a mixed blessing. In the opening pages, a young man named Abdo wishes again and again for a Mercedes, but manages only to conjure up fragments of cars and tiny models before an onrushing full-size vehicle leaves him dying in the street. Egypt’s government eventually follows the EU’s lead in banning third-class wishes, and controversy around the legality of the wishes in Shokry’s kiosk – even though they are of the more potent and reliable “first class” – makes buyers think twice. Abdo’s widow Aziza wonders if a wish can heal her hurt. Depressed student Nour seeks a way to escape the “unbearable weight” of each day, but doubts it can be found in a bottle. And Shokry considers a good deed that might rid him of his troublesome wishes, and help someone else in the process.

Most stories about wishes focus on what happens afterwards – the fortunes won, the unforeseen side-effects. But Mohamed is more interested in what comes before: the doubt about how a wish might be phrased, whether it is haram (forbidden), what might be lost if it is granted. Your Wish Is My Command offers both drama and introspection as Aziza negotiates grief and thuggish officials, Nour rides out a grim rollercoaster of emotions and Shokry tries to keep his business running, while slowly revealing the mystery of his bottles’ origin.

Mohamed’s artwork bursts with energy throughout: monochrome images of incarceration rub up against bright street corners

Mohamed’s artwork bursts with energy throughout: stark monochrome images of incarceration rub up against bright street corners, beaming scenes of comedy sit next to diagrams charting Nour’s emotions, while Cairo’s cramped backstreets and affluent suburbs are rendered with grit and love. Shokry’s stall gleams like a jewel under the streetlights, while the wishes emerge from their bottles in an abstract tangle of ribbons and typography. Mohamed gives evocative nods to city life as she goes, introducing local pastries, etiquette and street slang in a book that mixes fable-like universality with vivid locations.

At times it feels a little overstuffed – alongside accounts of oppression, college life, depression, faith, imperialism, violence and friendship, Your Wish Is My Command delivers chunks of world-building via excerpts from Nour’s “wishful thinking and philosophies” lecture course and reference-book style breakdowns of the wish industry. Yet while the book’s spell occasionally breaks, it’s never long before an acute observation, an immersive panel or a talking donkey pulls you back in. This tale of motivations and magic fizzes with ideas, but treats its fantastic subject with subtlety and its characters with thoughtful care. It’s about as auspicious a debut as you could wish for.

Your Wish Is My Command by Deena Mohamed is published by Granta (£19.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.