‘A Master of Djinn’ is a fun alternate history novel, exploring a version of early 1900s Cairo where djinn roam the streets and, rather than being a British colony, Egypt has shaken them off and struck out as its own world power. At times it can get a bit too sucked into description and context, but for the most part its a fast-paced read packed with strong characters and an intriguing mystery. This is P Djeli Clark’s debut novel, but is set in the same world as some of his previous short stories including ‘A Dead Djinn in Cairo’. Reading those stories provides context but is not necessary to enjoy the book.
Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Cairo Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, but she’s no rookie – she even prevented the destruction of the universe last summer. So when a wealthy English expatriate’s secret society are all mysteriously burned to death, she finds herself put on the case. The society was dedicated to al-Jahiz – the man who opened the gate between the mundane and magical realms fifty years ago before vanishing into the unknown. Fatma’s case becomes more complicated when a mysterious figure appears, proclaiming himself to be al-Jahiz returned and instigating unrest on the streets of Cairo. Alongside her new partner agent Hadia and her fiery girlfriend Siti, Fatma must unravel the mystery before Cairo is thrust into chaos.
Fatma is a brilliant protagonist. As the first young woman to crack the Ministry, she has a chip on her shoulder the size of a small boulder and an independent streak wider than the Nile. She’s smart, a strong fighter, and takes her job seriously, but she’s also incredibly stubborn and set in her ways. Adjusting to having a new partner is difficult for her, as is taking other people’s advice on a case where even she might be out of her depth. Her growth throughout the novel is excellent, and she has some wonderful interactions with both Hadia and Siti.
Hadia and Siti are only seen through Fatma’s eyes, but they’re also complex, strong characters. Hadia, like Fatma, has struggled to crack the Ministry’s patriarchal system – but unlike Fatma, who wanders around in tailored Western suits and cows others with the force of her personality, Hadia has done it all in colourful Hijabs and a polite, unassuming manner. Between her devout Muslim faith and rule-abiding attitude, Hadia is constantly underestimated – including by Fatma. However, Hadia is just as competent as Fatma, and seeing how she constantly surprises people with her ability is both wonderful and sad to read. Hadia and Fatma are interesting case studies in how women are expected to change in order to be taken seriously, and their similarities and differences are brilliantly written.
Siti is an incorrigible flirt, a passionate devotee of the forbidden old Egyptian religions, and a generally mysterious character. Her and Fatma’s relationship is intriguing – there’s a lot of attraction there, but its clear at the start that the two don’t really understand each other. As the story goes on, that starts to change, and Clark does a great job of making the transition feel authentic.
This is an audacious novel. It creates an entirely new world filled with djinn, goblins, ghuls, dragons, and other fantastical creatures, alongside crafting an alternative history for Cairo from the point the British tried to invade in the mid-nineteenth century. Alongside its main mystery plotline, there are subplots on women’s rights, colourism, and the rights of the half-djinn. The scope is admirable, but in trying to fit everything into a four-hundred page book, Clark sometimes finds himself bogged down in paragraphs of rote description, losing some of the tension and flow. This is his first step from short stories to novels, and he’s simply taken on a bit too much for a single urban fantasy. However, the potential for his world is exceptional, and hopefully any sequels will smooth out some of the rough edges and flow much more smoothly.
Overall, ‘A Master of Djinn’ is a solid historical urban fantasy exploring an intriguing alternative version of Egypt. It has a few teething issues – as is to be expected of a debut novel – but still tells an excellent, fast-paced story with a cast of likeable and complex characters. Recommended for fans of urban fantasy, steampunk, and Islamic mythology.
Thanks to Orbit for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Orbit
Paperback: 19th August 2021