Publisher: Orbit Books
Publish Date: 11 May 2021
Page Count: 401 pages
With his novellas and short stories, P. Djèlí Clark has become a big name in fantasy, most recently with Ring Shout, a dark fantasy retelling of the Ku Klux Klan’s terrorism in 1920s Georgia. Being an auto-buy author for many readers, it will come as a surprise to no one that his first full-length novel A Master of Djinn is my most anticipated book of 2021.
In Clark’s Dead Djinn Universe, it’s been 50 years since the famous mystic Al-Jahiz punched a hole in the barrier separating the realms of human and djinn. Since then, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities has attempted to restore order and normality to a new Cairo where everyday folk rub shoulders with centuries-old beings. Months after the dangerous investigation that took place in A Dead Djinn in Cairo, Ministry Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi returns to solve a new case in A Master of Djinn.
When a wealthy Englishman and the members of his secret society are found burnt alive with their clothing left miraculously intact, Special Agent Fatma is called to the scene. She discovers they were a Brotherhood dedicated to uncovering the secrets of Al-Jahiz and learns that the murderer claims to be the mystic himself, returning after 40 years. Fatma sets out to uncover the true identity of the imposter, and bring him to justice before he can bring Cairo to its knees.
Clark’s alternate history Egypt is without a doubt one of the most alluring and vibrant settings in modern fantasy. It’s a steampunk playground of magic, technology and social revolution that jumps off of the page and demands to be explored. His Dead Djinn universe is the only fantasy I’ve come across that celebrates Arab culture and features Muslim protagonists, which in itself is new and exciting.
In this instalment, Clark delves a little further into how Cairo’s status has shaped international politics. This is done more playfully than seriously, with his depiction of European leaders and English aristocracy almost approaching caricature. I read somewhere that, despite the serious source material, Clark wrote Ring Shout to be more fun than commentary, and a little of that tone is present in A Master of Djinn.
Beyond this and further developing Djinn lore, much of the story is similar to the previous novellas, and Clark sticks with police procedural (though the stakes are arguably higher). This whodunnit formula meant that I saw a couple of plot developments coming from a mile away which diminished the tension somewhat, and Fatma has some pretty questionable interviewing and sleuthing skills for the sake of maintaining mystery.
I expected Clark to shake things up a fair bit with A Master of Djinn to explain the change in format from novella to novel. For example, instead of sticking with a one-person POV, it could have followed cases led by Fatma as well as Agent Hamad and Onsi that somehow intersected, beefing things up a bit. I do wonder if the page count was Clark’s creative decision, or if there was pressure on him to write a novel for the sales.
But, my specific expectations aside, the book is a lot of fun and it was great to be back in Clark’s incredible world. I really enjoyed the concept of homegrown magic beating imperialism, which reminded me a little of The Unbroken.
I also got strong Legend of Korra vibes from A Master of Djinn: a modern city struggling to catch up with its own exponential rate of change, and a masked stranger sowing seeds of unrest among the population.
I found a new favourite character in Hadia, a good Muslim woman who doesn’t let long skirts get in the way of completely dominating in hand-to-hand combat. The creepy race of clockwork giants who call themselves angels also make a return, and I suspect they will be central to the story in the next book.
A Master of Djinn is another example of Clark’s talent in creating immersive stories that play with magic and modern history. It can be picked up without having read the previous instalments, but for the sake of in-world chronology (and because I loved the novellas so much), I recommend reading them in order of publication. Lucky for us, they’re mostly available for free online:
- A Dead Djinn in Cairo
- The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (excerpt)
- The Angel of Khan el-Khalili
- A Master of Djinn (excerpt)
Many thanks to the publisher for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review!
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