Start: December 8, 2021
Finish: December 20, 2021
Synopsis: 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 the members of a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called to the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world forty 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 condemns the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threatens to spill onto the global stage.
Alongside her Ministry colleagues and a familiar face 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…
‘A Master of Djinn’ was on my TBR since the beginning of the year and I’m glad I FINALLY set aside time to read this alt-history, steampunk fantasy. P. Djèlí Clark is one of my favorite authors and while there were some minor issues with this novel, I’d read anything by Clark, especially if it’s set in this universe.
This was a fun read! I was engaged from the very first page and though I figured out the true culprit early in the story (more on that later), I was always eager to return to the novel and uncover more of the mystery. From rich details to intriguing lore tidbits and sweet character moments, ‘A Master of Djinn’ perfectly balances the gritty, noir detective story with a fantastical, mildly absurdist tale filled with djinn, angelic like beings and two female Ministry who are trying to keep the peace in Cairo.
When reading one of Clark’s stories, you’re almost immediately transported into the story. This version of Cairo feels rich and lived in. There were plenty of passages that made me want to book a trip to Egypt or find a way to step into the story.
Fatma followed her gaze to where the morning sun beat down on Cairo–a mix of towering modern buildings and factories. Newer ones went up by the day, their steel girders like bones awaiting skin, amid streets crammed with carriages, trolleys, steam cars, and more. The skyline was no less busy, traveled by speeding tram cars that left crackling electric bolts in their wake. Even higher, a blue airship hovered like a skyborne whale–six propellers pushing it toward the horizon.
Clark is skilled at descriptive writing and we see it on fully display in this novel. And I love the lore surrounding the different types of djinn and how their presence changed the political dynamics. It’s clear the author thought hard about how injecting magical creatures into a realistic setting will have an impact on nearly every aspect of life.
The novel closely follows Fatma, one of the few female Ministry agents. She dresses in dapper suits, opts for negotiations over the easy kill, and prefers working alone but begrudgingly warms up to her new partner, Hadia, a few graduate who is new to the Ministry. Joining the agents is Siti, a mysterious and complicated figure from Fatma’s past, who seems to pop up at every important point during the investigation. These three women make up the main cast of characters, but they’re joined by a diverse cast of side characters with unique traits. I enjoyed the characters in here and found the dialogue to be mostly witty and succinct. There were a few moments where I chuckled aloud. By the end, some of the funnier moments cut the tension of the climax and finale. But overall, I would eagerly read more works featuring this cast.
Like any good murder mystery, there are false leads and shocking twists that leave you on the edge of your seat and there is at least one twist in here that I did not see coming. Clark does a great job with dropping hints and weaving them together to create a satisfactory end.
As much as I enjoyed this novel, there were some minor flaws that I didn’t care for.
About halfway through the story, I figured out who the main culprit was and once their motivation was revealed I felt like it was mildly flimsy and cliched. I wish they were given a stronger reason for committing such violent acts from the start of the story to the end. They were a good antagonist until the end and then they devolved into a overly comical character which was slightly grating.
This point isn’t necessarily a con, but I think it’s important to note that the novel references both ‘A Dead Djinn in Cairo‘ and ‘The Haunting of Tram Car 015,’ the two other works in this shared universe. I read ‘The Haunting’ once before and intended to read ‘A Dead Djinn’ before starting this novel, but never found the time. Both stories are really short and can be read in a few hours or a day or two. It may be worth reading them before starting the novel, but it’s not 100% necessary.
I desperately want more from this universe. I loved the characters and their interactions. I like a magical system and magical creatures that’s not based on typical medieval Western European standards. I was a fan of P. Djèlí Clark after reading his second novella and this novel strengthen my appreciation of his work. This was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021 and now that I’ve finished it, it’s one of my top novels of the year!