Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns to his popular alternate Cairo universe for his fantasy novel debut, A Master of Djinn
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 50 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 her clever girlfriend Siti, 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….
Thank you to Little, Brown Book Group UK for an e-ARC of this book.
A Master of Djinn was not what I was expecting and it’s definitely not my cup of tea, as I am not a reader of the steampunk genre. Nevertheless, this book deserves 4 stars because the world that the writer built for this story is absolutely outstanding.
The story (in brief) takes place in an alternative Cairo, full of djinn and other mythical creatures, and you follow Fatma el-Sha’arawi, investigator of the Ministry of Alchemy, while she tries to find out who killed the members of a secret brotherhood.
The murder incident at the beginning sets the initial tone of the story so it led me to believe I was going to read a murder mystery story, which was fine. I haven’t read the previous novellas set in this world, so it was my first time meeting Fatma and I was really intrigued about getting to know this investigator from the Ministry of Alchemy. However, while the investigation continues, the story also slowly changes genre and it becomes more of a fantasy story and that threw me off a bit. This story is massively plot-driven and there are moments where too much was happening.
On one hand, I felt the writer slowly set aside Fatma, and no further indication of her background or her personality was given. I am not sure if the character was fully introduced in the short stories and maybe I am missing out, but in A Master of Djinn, she was quite underdeveloped. Sometimes she didn’t strike me as an impressive investigator. Among all the characters of this story, I thought Hadia was the most complex and meaningful character. She is a religious woman, she wears a hijab. She lives in a heavily conservative society, working for a government facility. She is very smart, but it’s so hard for her to get the role of investigator, as Fatma’s partner, and get the recognition she deserves.
On the other hand, this world-building felt too massive for just one book. The writer brought up interesting political and historical bits which connect to our modern society. I welcomed the discussion about slavery and colonialism. However, on top of this, you have djinn, automatons, ifrit, goblins, ghouls, angels… yeah, that was a tad overwhelming. I loved how everything was mixed, but at times it became a heavy read.
I have to admit I slowly lost interest and the ending was dragging on forever. I am willing to consider this may be because of my mental exhaustion, but it was a long way to the end and it took me a bit to finish it. Also, I figured out halfway what was happening and I didn’t appreciate that Fatma couldn’t see the blatant proof around her. This was an ARC so I hope that the shift I felt in the narrative is changed in the final edition. I still give it four stars, because the writing is flawless and this world has so much potential.