A Review of A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark
We first met Fatma el-Sha’arawi, special investigator with the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, in a 2016 short story called A Dead Djinn in Cairo, published by Tor.com. I’m always a bit worried that novels born out of short stories will turn out to be simply rehashed or extended versions of the original material. In this case, though, author P. Djèlí Clark has given the fans exactly what they wanted: a richer, bigger, more vibrant plot, set within the same intriguing world.
The setting is Cairo, 1912. Half a century earlier, a Soudanese mystic named al-Jahiz managed to open a portal into the Kaf, “the other-realm of the djinn”. Egypt is now home to large numbers of magical djinn, who live alongside humans, and as a result of whose technological expertise Cairo has outstripped London as one of the world’s major cities. The steampunk vibe of this world is refreshing and charming: “boilerplate eunuchs” made of metal serve as robot servants, the skyline is criss-crossed with aerial trams, and gamblers bet on clockwork camel races.
The story begins at the house of an Englishman named Lord Alistair Worthington, who is hosting a gathering of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz. This opening chapter, in my opinion, was the weakest point of the novel; it’s more of a prologue, really, with a different point-of-view character to the rest of the novel. I found the entrance of the bad guy a touch predictable, and the quick descent into gory violence felt like shock tactics, given that the central characters in this chapter are quintessential British buffoons unlikely to arouse the reader’s sympathy. It’s a short, chapter, though, and after that we’re with Fatma for the rest of the novel.
I have nothing but good things to say about Fatma el-Sha’arawi. She likes to wear Western men’s suits, figuring that she’s going to draw stares regardless in a society where women have only recently entered public life, and she might as well look dapper doing it. She has a bowler hat and a cane with a sword inside it. She carries a golden pocket watch “fashioned like an antique asturlab”, a gift from her clock-maker father. She has a sort-of-girlfriend called Siti, an “idolater” who worships the ancient gods of Egypt and seems to have some suspiciously supernatural abilities.
Given her reputation as a hotshot supernatural investigator, Fatma soon finds herself assigned to untangle the gory events of the opening chapter. Twenty people have been found burned to death at the Worthington estate, with the room around them mysteriously untouched by fire. A man in a gold mask was seen fleeing the scene. He begins popping up all over Cairo, claiming to be the mystic al-Jahiz. Fatma, accompanied by her eager new partner Hadia, sets out on a murder-mystery quest across the city, in a bid to prove that the man in the gold mask is nothing but an imposter. While Fatma tries to discern his motives, the imposter is on a quest of his own, trying to reassemble a dangerous machine known as the Clock of Worlds. The stakes ratchet up, heading towards potentially apocalyptic disaster.
Police procedural stories aren’t really my thing, but the amount of inventive fantasy woven into this one kept me riveted. At every turn, Fatma encounters some new supernatural terror: blood-thirsty ghuls, illusions, fiery Ifrit, and a man who looks more and more like a crocodile every time we see him. The novel occasionally dips its toes into outright gore (a djinn who’s been forced to cut out and regrow his own tongue, for example), but for the most part it’s good inclusive fun. Clark constantly finds new ways to challenge the concept of magic and what it means for the human residents of Cairo. What would it be like to share your city with hugely powerful beings who are capable of superhuman violence, or of making you see things that aren’t real, or even of tampering with your memories? The more we learn about this world, the more Fatma’s job seems of critical importance, even as she grapples with the limitations of the Ministry’s knowledge and of her own human abilities.
The pacing of the novel is excellent; it zips along without ever feeling rushed or forced. The main characters are well-drawn, the tie-ins with Clark’s other works are relatively unobtrusive, and the setting is of course magnificent throughout. Having just received a well-deserved Hugo Award nomination earlier this month, A Master of Djinn is definitely not to be missed!
Reviewed by Katie McIvor. Katie can be found on Twitter @_McKatie_