A Master of Djinn

by P. Djèlí Clark

Cover image

Series: Dead Djinn Universe #1
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 1-250-26767-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 391

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A Master of Djinn is the first novel in the Dead Djinn Universe, but (as you might guess from the series title) is a direct sequel to the novelette "A Dead Djinn in Cairo". The novelette is not as good as the novel, but I recommend reading it first for the character introductions and some plot elements that carry over. Reading The Haunting of Tram Car 015 first is entirely optional.

In 1912 in a mansion in Giza, a secret society of (mostly) British men is meeting. The Hermetic Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz is devoted to unlocking the mysteries of the Soudanese mystic al-Jahiz. In our world, these men would likely be colonialist plunderers. In this world, they still aspire to that role, but they're playing catch-up. Al-Jahiz bored into the Kaf, releasing djinn and magic into the world and making Egypt a world power in its own right. Now, its cities are full of clockwork marvels, djinn walk the streets as citizens, and British rule has been ejected from India and Africa by local magic. This group of still-rich romantics and crackpots hopes to discover the knowledge lost when al-Jahiz disappeared. They have not had much success.

This will not save their lives.

Fatma el-Sha'arawi is a special investigator for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. Her job is sorting out the problems caused by this new magic, such as a couple of young thieves with a bottle full of sleeping djinn whose angry reaction to being unexpectedly woken has very little to do with wishes. She is one of the few female investigators in a ministry that is slowly modernizing with the rest of society (Egyptian women just got the vote). She's also the one called to investigate the murder of a secret society of British men and a couple of Cairenes by a black-robed man in a golden mask.

The black-robed man claims to be al-Jahiz returned, and proves to be terrifyingly adept at manipulating crowds and sparking popular dissent. Fatma and the Ministry's first attempt to handle him is a poorly-judged confrontation stymied by hostile crowds, the man's duplicating bodyguard, and his own fighting ability. From there, it's a race between Fatma's pursuit of linear clues and the black-robed man's efforts to destabilize society.

This, like the previous short stories, is a police procedural, but it has considerably more room to breathe at novel length. That serves it well, since as with "A Dead Djinn in Cairo" the procedural part is a linear, reactive vehicle for plot exposition. I was more invested in Fatma's relationships with the supporting characters. Since the previous story, she's struck up a romance with Siti, a highly competent follower of the old Egyptian gods (Hathor in particular) and my favorite character in the book. She's also been assigned a new partner, Hadia, a new graduate and another female agent. The slow defeat of Fatma's irritation at not being allowed to work alone by Hadia's cheerful competence and persistence (and willingness to do paperwork) adds a lot to the characterization.

The setting felt a bit less atmospheric than The Haunting of Tram Car 015, but we get more details of international politics, and they're a delight. Clark takes obvious (and warranted) glee in showing how the reintroduction of magic has shifted the balance of power away from the colonial empires. Cairo is a bustling steampunk metropolis and capital of a world power, welcoming envoys from West African kingdoms alongside the (still racist and obnoxious but now much less powerful) British and other Europeans. European countries were forced to search their own mythology for possible sources of magic power, which leads to the hilarious scene of the German Kaiser carrying a sleepy goblin on his shoulder to monitor his diplomacy.

The magic of the story was less successful for me, although still enjoyable. The angels from "A Dead Djinn in Cairo" make another appearance and again felt like the freshest bit of world-building, but we don't find out much more about them. I liked the djinn and their widely-varied types and magic, but apart from them and a few glimpses of Egypt's older gods, that was the extent of the underlying structure. There is a significant magical artifact, but the characters are essentially handed an instruction manual, use it according to its instructions, and it then does what it was documented to do. It was a bit unsatisfying. I'm the type of fantasy reader who always wants to read the sourcebook for the magic system, but this is not that sort of a book.

Instead, it's the kind of book where the investigator steadily follows a linear trail of clues and leads until they reach the final confrontation. Here, the confrontation felt remarkably like cut scenes from a Japanese RPG: sudden vast changes in scale, clockwork constructs, massive monsters, villains standing on mobile platforms, and surprise combat reversals. I could almost hear the fight music and see the dialog boxes pop up. This isn't exactly a complaint — I love Japanese RPGs — but it did add to the feeling that the plot was on rails and didn't require many decisions from the protagonist. Clark also relies on an overused plot cliche in the climactic battle, which was a minor disappointment.

A Master of Djinn won the Nebula for best 2021 novel, I suspect largely on the basis of its setting and refreshingly non-European magical system. I don't entirely agree; the writing is still a bit clunky, with unnecessary sentences and stock phrases showing up here and there, and I think it suffers from the typical deficiencies of SFF writers writing mysteries or police procedurals without the plot sophistication normally found in that genre. But this is good stuff for a first novel, with fun supporting characters (loved the librarian) and some great world-building. I would happily read more in this universe.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-07-05

Last modified and spun 2022-07-23