Making the transition from novella series to a full-fledged novel is not an easy one, but today we have another example of someone who got it right. A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark, is the fourth story in the Dead Djinn universe and the first full book. It is set in 1912 in a reimagined Cairo that is brimming with both life and magic. The book follows a murder mystery in a rich and vivid setting with a cast of memorable characters. A Master of Djinn is one of the most solid arrivals of 2021.
Our leading lady is Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. When all the members of a secret brotherhood dedicated to al-Jahiz (one of the most famous men in history) is murdered, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, bringing Djinn into the physical world, before vanishing into the unknown. This new serial killer claims to be al-Jahiz returned, here to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. Can Fatma get to the bottom of this mysterious murderer’s identity, and stop them from tearing down the delicate balance that keeps Cairo upright?
My first note for potential readers is that I highly recommend they read the 3 prequel novellas: A Dead Djinn in Cairo, The Angel of Khan el-Khalili, and The Haunting of Tram Car 015. While they aren’t strictly required to read A Master of Djinn, there are constant references to the events of the novellas in the book and it will be easier to follow if you have read them. Also, the novellas are great.
A Master of Djinn does many things very well. Characters, themes, and worldbuilding all show up dressed to the nines. Fatma is a ray of sunshine, bright and luminous. Her biggest quirk is that she loves bold suits that encompass the full rainbow and is often known for the bright colors and styles she wears that shirk cultural norms. She is a loner, but kind and sweet. Fatma is supported by a rookie partner (Hadia) and a girlfriend (Siti) with a mysterious past, present, and future. The three of them all bring very different worldviews and backgrounds to the team and form a melting pot driven by the same goal of making Cairo a better place. I thought their clashes and growth all felt organic and did an amazing job pushing and pulling the entire story forward.
This leads to the themes of the book, which are great. Finding a balance between tradition, modernity, and change is a big one and Clark makes a compelling case for diversity and different POVs. Many challenges in the story can only be overcome by people with different identities working together, and it makes a very solid and wholesome argument. Racism and classism are also major themes, with Clark doing a great job using comedy and caricature to represent awful bigots. In particular, I really enjoyed the English gentleman explorer who was convinced that the pharaohs must have been caucasian because only a white person could have held that much power. It mixes hyperbole with history in a perfect balance to accentuate and demonize the fake and real individuals who treat other people and nations this way. And watching this racist monster burn in the prologue evoked complex emotions in me that were interesting to explore. Clark also has some powerful commentary on how people support causes and makes interesting observations about the motivations of why people engage in social progress. It is worth a read for this alone.
The worldbuilding is Djinn’s greatest strength and a call to action to put more fantasy stories in Cairo. The city is a wonderland, and Clark shows you spectacle after spectacle as he moves Fatma through the city. The Djinn that litter the world are unlike any fantasy species I have read before and I want more of them in all of my books going forward. However, one place I struggled with immersion was with the prose. While Clark’s prose is fantastic, he has a tendency to get hyper-focused on the details and spend a huge amount of time describing every single thing in a scene. When we are in the realm of the clockwork angels this is an advantage, but when we are in a random person’s living room hearing about the number of seams on their outfit can be exhausting.
In addition, the plot of A Master of Djinn leaves a little to be desired. The book relies on a fairly simple formula that is repeated numerous times. First Fatma gets a lead that al-Jahiz has been spotted. She goes to that location, finds ‘al-Jahiz’, and accuses them of being a fake. al-Jahiz then does some sort of magic that leaves the reader wondering if they are or aren’t who they claim, then al-Jahiz runs away. Then it repeats. There isn’t a lot of deviation from this formula and it starts to feel a little stale halfway through the book. Yet, despite its repetitive plot, Djinn’s other assets more than compensate to make this a highly recommended read.
A Master of Djinn is full of colorful worldbuilding, smart characters, and well-written ideas and themes. It manages to feel both topical and historical at the same time while being unlike anything else I have read in the historical fiction space. Clark has a powerful voice and a keen eye for detail that sets him apart from other authors in the genre. I definitely recommend you check out this book.
Rating: A Master of Djinn – 8.0/10