Title: A Master of Djinn
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Pages: 416 (print)
Stand-alone/Series: Series but easily read as a stand-alone.
Year of Release: 2021
Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities.
When someone murders the members of a secret society, Agent Fatma’s job is to find the killer.
Set in Cairo in 1912, where djinn walk the streets and steampunk eunuchs serve coffee.
Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend, Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind their deaths and restore peace to the city.
P. Djèlí Clark is a master of world-building. The alternative Cairo he has created is tangible. I could quite quickly be drinking Sarsaparilla with Fatma. I can imagine seeing djinn doing their daily business and buying books from them.
He can also create a story that builds as you (the reader) and Fatma discover what’s happening. Clark shifts gears and moves things up a scale constantly. Just when you think it’s going to plateau, it jolts forward.
It is, at its heart, a historical urban fantasy detective story. The facts are there for Fatma to follow. But it’s also a Fantasy tale with a big F. The murders lead Fatma to find beings with inhuman motivations.
It’s also a romance. Siti always has Fatma’s back and leaps into danger. Fatma and Siti’s relationship is explored internally through Fatma’s feelings and externally through how other’s perceive them.
And this brings me to my problem with A Master of Djinn; it’s almost too perfect.
Clark has a cast of characters that too often pop up at the right time and place. Some readers, like me, get distracted from the momentum when they see some of the illusions’ mechanisms.
It’s his first novel, and I found it immensely enjoyable. I got frustrated by what I thought was the big scene at almost the novel’s end, but Clark had another trick to pull out of his bag, and I enjoyed being tricked.
He’s also used his setting to challenge colonialism and the Euro-centric worldviews. This, I think, he does with humour and panache. And is one of the other strengths of A Master of Djinn.
I wasn’t sure there could be the potential for a sequel as the story seems so entwined into the environment. After finishing it, I’m confident that if Clark wanted to revisit this world that he’d find another angle to look at his world.
Clark has created an anti-colonial fantastical environment to tell his police procedural using an outsider’s point of view that addresses war, power and manipulation.
As well as exploring the people’s need for a champion when they are considered the underdog, he puts a sapphic romance into the centre of this steampunk.
Did I say it’s also a detective story? It is, and the clues are there!