When was the last time you read a fantasy book set in an alternate Cairo of the 1910s, where the streets are populated by djinn, ifrits and automatons? Where there is also a bit of magical murder mystery thrown into the mix? If your answer to either of those questions was “never, but I need that in my life,” you need to start reading P. Djèlí Clark.
The author’s first full length novel, A Master of Djinn expands on a world first introduced in the two novellas A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015. It sees the return of Agent Fatma el- Sha’awari, employee of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, to investigate a mass murder of a group of wealthy Westerners involved in a secret brotherhood dedicated to the historical figure Al Jahiz – famous in this world for emancipating the djinns. It’s worth saying that this book works perfectly well as a stand-alone, and from my own point of view – as having not read these two previous stories – I had no major issues diving straight in with this novel first.
Clark takes a lot of time and enjoyment in weaving you a complete picture of his universe from the get go – the distinct neighbourhoods of this alternate Cairo, the geopolitics of the times – largely similar to real events in 1912, just with added goblins – and the wide array of steampunky machinery, vehicles and automata like the ‘boilerplate eunuchs’. It is instantly enticing, particularly in the first few chapters. Fatma too, is easily likeable in her conspicuous three-piece suits and bowler hats and her impassioned relationship with the enigmatic Siti. The first third of the novel where the two of them move through the markets and bars of a vividly rendered Cairo are completely engrossing.
Beyond this point, the weaknesses in the book become more apparent. Shifting gears from a straight murder mystery to some high paced action, the story begins to lag, moving rather repetitively from one action sequence to the next, which just on personal taste is not something I tend to enjoy reading. As a result, the twists and turns of the murder mystery are given less focus and the killer’s identity less well hidden, so that you will likely arrive at the right answer before Fatma does, which doesn’t ring true for a detective that is supposed to be at the top of her game.
Issues with characterisation also become clear. Fatma’s dialogue with Siti is at times superficial and doesn’t completely convey the depth and passion that you want to get from so central a relationship, although this impression may be in part due to my not having read the story of their initial meeting in the previous novellas. Fatma is also given a partner in the form of the eager and earnest Hadia, who is endearingly realised as a character, but so completely adept at her job that she almost outstrips Fatma in the investigation to the point where you are again questioning Fatma’s own ability.
Being the first full length novel written in this world, issues of pacing are understandable, and don’t take away from the completely mesmerising environment that Clark creates, with ample material and opportunity for further thrilling stories. Personally, I would prefer more dark and twisty murder mystery rather than full blown magical fight sequences, but in 1910’s steampunk Cairo, there’s more than enough room for both.
A Master of Djinn was published by Orbit on 19 August 2021