Book Reviews

Review: A Master of Djinn by P Djeli Clark

I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did – but I ended up having a good time!

Book: A Master of Djinn by P Djèlí Clark

Publication date: 19th August 2021

Ownership: Proof sent free of charge by Orbit Books. All opinions my own.

Content warnings: violence, injury and death (quite graphic); racism and colourism, including on-page slurs; misogyny; slavery.

Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.

So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world fifty years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.

Alongside her Ministry colleagues and a familiar person from her past, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city—or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems…

So I was a little worried when this turned up unexpected on my doorstep, since I hadn’t enjoyed the first short story set in this world, A Dead Djinn in Cairo, and I’d DNFed The Black God’s Drums, the only other piece of Clark’s work I’d read. I picked A Master of Djinn up fully expecting to bounce off it and DNF, but I was very surprised to find it was actually really good fun. I’m going to have to go back and revisit A Dead Djinn in Cairo and track down The Haunting of Tram Car 015 to see if it’s just that my tastes have changed, or whether this was just a lucky fluke. A lot of my friends have been raving about this world for a long time, so I’m pleased that this finally worked for me!

My first run-in with Agent Fatma didn’t make a huge impression on me, but in A Master of Djinn I found her much more entertaining as a lead. She’s an intelligent, no-nonsense woman in a male-dominated job, and I enjoyed seeing her take charge and subvert expectations; this was slightly at the expense of the depth of her character, but she’s still fun to follow. There’s a real sense that we’re meant to marvel at how cool she is, with her snappy dialogue and the huge amount of detail paid to her dapper suits. It could be irritating, but I thought it sat just the right side of it – she’s the cool detective trope, and that’s fine. Plus, she’s in a sapphic relationship with mysterious, arse-kicking priestess Siti, whom I adored – their relationship is enjoyably written, and feels believable. Siti’s appearances were a highlight of the book for me! I really enjoyed that there was little relationship drama – it’s always nice to see solid existing relationships in fantasy, as they are few and far between, especially queer ones. Fatma also has to deal with another woman getting involved in her life when she’s assigned to work with rookie Hadia – it’s a lovely counterpoint to Fatma’s brash manner to have Hadia be another mould-breaking woman but in a very different way, and their interactions and discussions added some much-needed depth to Fatma’s character, who ran the risk of being a little bit ‘not like other girls’.

The worldbuilding is interesting, and I wished we’d seen a little more of it. This is an alternate 1910s Egypt with a steampunk flavour, but I thought that mentions of the magical tech were too few – I would have loved to get much more detail on it; the balance between fantasy and police procedural is weighted a little too far towards the latter for me, though it evens up in the second half. The action is fast-paced and the mystery unfolds nicely, so even though this is a relatively chunky book, it’s easy to keep turning pages thinking ‘just one more chapter’. I did end up guessing one of the twists quite early on, and was sure it had to be a red herring as it was just so obvious – I’m someone who totally disengages my brain when I read mysteries, so for me to spot it means it was definitely telegraphed hard. It’s far from the only thing the plot resolution hinges on, though, so there was still plenty to discover. In fact, the last third of the book slams a huge amount of new plot together in a slightly chaotic, but certainly compelling way.

At times, I felt that A Master of Djinn was a little rough around the edges; there’s plenty of swagger but I’m not sure all the dots are joined up underneath. But if you let yourself be swept along with it, it’s a fun supernatural romp in a very interesting setting. I’m hopeful that the sequels might slow down and let some of the really interesting elements breathe – I’m definitely looking forward to them. Four out of five cats.

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