REVIEW: A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark
Forty years ago in Egypt, the mystic and inventor Al-Jahiz pierced the veil between realms, sending magic into the world before vanishing into the unknown.
Now in 1912 Cairo, humans brush elbows with djinn in crowded tramcars and airships sail the skies. In this new world the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities maintains an uneasy peace. When someone claiming to be Al-Jahiz “returned” murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to his legacy, however, that peace dissolves into disarray.
The Ministry’s youngest agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi has saved the world before. But this case is a special challenge. The imposter’s dangerous magical abilities and revolutionary message threaten to tear apart the fabric of this new Egyptian society, and spill over onto the global stage. Can Agent Fatma unravel the mystery of Al-Jahiz in time to save the world—again?
Dear Mr. Clark,
“A Dead Djinn in Cairo” wet my appetite for 1912 steampunk/fantasy Cairo. With the follow up “The Haunting of Tram Car 015,” I was all in. When I saw that there was going to be a full length novel set in this world, I salivated and was giddy when I got my hands on an arc. I liked some of what I read but I had to wade through some sections that slowed the action to a crawl and watched an investigator who, at times, wasn’t all that good at her job.
The opening scene initially seems a bit silly. A group of (mainly) Englishmen, who seem to have joined because they’re company “yes” men, are part of a Brotherhood based on the mysterious figure of Al-Jahiz. Soon they discover that they shouldn’t have stirred up things they don’t understand. After an extended scene that is only there just to show how nasty some djinn can be, Agent Fatma is called in to help the Cairo police investigate the gruesome scene which is all that now remains of the Brotherhood. Before long, the police and the Ministry realize that there is far more going on than a mass murder no matter how grisly or tinged with the supernatural it is.
In my review of “Dead Djinn” I mentioned that the lead investigator, Fatma, basically had her case solved for her. Fatma is a very interesting character who is strong, decisive, and a snappy dresser. Fatma’s sexual interest from the first novella is a major part of this book. What begins as mostly a physical relationship soon turns to a deeper one with Siti, who some would call one of the idolaters who want to bring back the ancient Egyptian gods, adding quite a bit of knowledge and at times muscle to the proceedings. Fatma also has a new partner Hadia, another female agent, whom she initially attempts to fob off on someone else as Fatma thinks she works better alone. By the end of the book I hope she’s realized she’s wrong.
The magic and supernatural entities that abounded in the first two novellas are back. Djinn are now everywhere and Egypt, to some degree, owes her renewed prominence on the world stage to them and their contributions making djinn a bit like immigrants who are finally being acknowledged for their hard work. But the powers djinn have are nothing to fool around with as two young idiots learn when Fatma has to save them from their folly. There’s a reason that many djinn go into law as they’re killer negotiators.
This world is vivid and totally fleshed out which can be a joy to read about. I eagerly soaked up the wonder that is the Ministry headquarters in Cairo, built by djinn, which in a way is “alive” and the slightly snobbish djinn who rules over the library there. At various times, Fatma, Siti, and or Hadia venture into the fancy neighborhoods and souks of Cairo to question suspects or people they hope can help inform them about weird and amazing things. The variety of djinn are astounding and described in detail as to how they look (wow) and what they can do. There are tram cars, boilerplate eunuchs, fabulous sounding restaurants and coffee shops, and self driving cars.
Yet at times there are scenes that take time and attention away from Fatma’s case such as her night out in a bar. As interesting as this is to read, it serves no purpose in the plot. Time is spent with Fatma talking to her apartment doorman who does add texture to her world but again, this is extraneous and unneeded. Then comes a section during which world politics are boringly discussed among a group of people at a gala. It does point out colonialism (which in this world failed and was thrown off much earlier than real life) and we watch the awkwardness of (mainly white) Imperialists forced to come to terms with those they once ruled but as far as solving the murders or figuring out the other things threatening Cairo and Egypt – nope, nothing.
Fatma is again told a lot of what she needs to discover and pointed in the right direction multiple times. Her plans often go awry (once she caused a full scale riot) with no backup plan B to save the day. Her initial hostility to working with a partner makes her look like a hissing cat who only reluctantly begins working with Hadia because she’s ordered to. Yeah she’s not so supportive to another female agent. At times, Fatma seems more absorbed with her wardrobe than with tracking down clues. Fatma also disparages the idolaters despite seeing the abilities they have and watching one begin to shift his appearance which she continues to dismiss to the end.
Hadia soon became my favorite character and I actually cheered when she proved herself to be a lot stronger than Fatma thought and much more competent than Fatma is. Hamid and Onsi appear in numerous scenes and acquit themselves well while Fatma just keeps on misjudging people and missing clues. Seriously, I want to like her. I want to support a woman who has risen, in a challenging job, despite living in a still patriarchal society but Fatma often makes that hard.
I’m still not sure if I’m happy that the book turns from a standard (even if in a world filled with djinn and magic) murder investigation to a “save the world” fantasy thriller or not. The transition is good and makes sense but I would have been very satisfied with another novella like “Tram Car.” However once the fat hits the fire and the villain is identified and begins to threaten all humanity, I settled in and hung on for the ride.
Things are revealed during the Final Showdown that have Fatma wondering why no one at the Ministry knows these things as they seem fairly important things to know. A pacifist Ifrit who just wants to explore his artistic side shows Fatma (and I assume the reader) the danger of judging, the reactions of some Cairo elites towards Siti’s skin color shows that racism and colorism is there, while others look down on biracial Siti for another reason. Fatma’s desperate attempt to keep the villain from being killed rather than merely captured and imprisoned is commendable but with the fate of humanity and djinn freewill hanging in the balance, a few other characters joined me in urging her to get on with it. Sometimes a person truly is so evil that there is just no question of what should be done. Fatma’s decision and actions during the Fateful Moment do redeem her a bit for me.
I ended up liking a lot of what is here but not everything. The sharp focus of the novellas seemed to be lost and there were a lot of scenes and descriptions that while they served to add color and depth to the story could easily have been edited down or removed altogether to get things moving. I also realized that from what I’ve read so far, I’m just not that much of a fan of Fatma. She’s not nearly as good an investigator as she thinks she is and though she appears to have accepted Hadia and sees that agent’s worth, Fatma needed a knot jerked in her a time or two. But this does leave room for a lot of future growth and improvement in her character. This enchanted world still thrills me and I will continue to read in it but my hopes for this book weren’t quite met. B-/C+
I’ll come back when I’ve read the book to comment, not in the least discouraged by your valid criticisms. This mystical version of Cairo will always draw me in, especially when it’s unlikely I’ll see the real thing any time soon. Thanks for the review.
@Darlynne: Even with my slightly more than lukewarm grade, I still can’t wait for a next book in this series.
@Jayne: That’s says a great deal. Thanks.
Finished this last night and realized i need to go back and re-read the other novellas. I am somewhere between loved and really liked; parts felt overly long, but the world-building was outstanding; the characters–all of them, but especially Siti and Hadia–were amazing. And I definitely forgot how funny the writing can be (“P.S. — This is Ahmad.”)
Even after reading your review, I didn’t pick up on Fatma being handed everything or every clue. Maybe she was, in a way, however I felt that was a result of knowing who to question and which leads to follow. I particularly liked how she could direct Hadia’s enthusiasm and also that Fatma needed to evolve so much herself. Honestly, Hadia is a ninja, I don’t care what anyone says.
I should have guessed the identity of the culprit right away, but that was some decent misdirection, which means I need to look at how I accept whatever the author offers. The ending felt right and I’m hopeful things in the city will run more smoothly, begin to heal. Probably not, but still.
I’m so glad you reviewed this, Jayne. It was a lovely trip.
@Darlynne: I’m glad you enjoyed it! I loved Hadia and hope we see much more of her. Yes to Fatma being a character who can and I hope will continue to grow. One instance of Fatma being handed a clue was from the character who “self harmed” who directed her to the bookstore. It’s been over a month since I read the book, so details aren’t as fresh in my mind.
@Jayne: Yes, and it was awful. But how else would she have found the bookstore and learned about the … stricture? Such information was so beyond any facts she had at the time, and no one else would have known. Too much Deus ex machina? That character tried so hard.