A Dead Djinn in Cairo

by P. Djèlí Clark

Cover image

Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: May 2016
ASIN: B01DJ0NALI
Format: Kindle
Pages: 47

Buy at Powell's Books

Fatma el-Sha'arawi is a special investigator with the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities in an alternate 1912 Egypt. In Fatma's world, the mystic al-Jahiz broke through to the realm of the djinn in the late 1800s, giving Egypt access to magic and the supernatural and the djinn access to Egypt. It is now one of the great powers of the world, able to push off the Europeans and control its own politics.

This is a Tor.com original novelette, so you can read it on-line for free or drop $2 on a Kindle version for convenience. It's the first story in the "Dead Djinn" universe, in which Clark has also written a novella and a novel (the latter of which won the Nebula Award for best novel in 2022).

There are three things here I liked. Fatma is a memorable character, both for her grumpy demeanor as a rare female investigator having to put up with a sexist pig of a local police liaison, and for her full British attire (including a bowler hat) and its explanation. (The dynamics felt a bit modern for a story set in 1912, but not enough to bother me.) The setting is Arabian-inspired fantasy, which is a nice break from the normal European or Celtic stuff. And there are interesting angels (Fatma: "They're not really angels"), which I think have still-underused potential, particularly when they can create interesting conflicts with Coptic Christianity and Islam. Clark's version are energy creatures of some sort inside semi-mechanical bodies with visuals that reminded me strongly of Diablo III (which in this context is a compliment). I'm interested to learn more about them, although I hope there's more going on than the disappointing explanation we get at the end of this story.

Other than those elements, there's not much here. As hinted by the title, the story is structured as a police investigation and Fatma plays the misfit detective. But there's no real mystery; the protagonists follow obvious clue to obvious clue to obvious ending. The plot structure is strictly linear and never surprised me. Aasim is an ass, which gives Fatma something to react to but never becomes real characterization. The world-building is the point, but most of it is delivered in infodumps, and the climax is a kind-of-boring fight where the metaphysics are explained rather than discovered.

I'm possibly being too harsh. There's space for novelettes that tell straightforward stories without the need for a twist or a sting. But I admit I found this boring. I think it's because it's not tight enough to be carried by the momentum of a simple plot, and it's also not long enough for either the characters or the setting to breathe and develop. The metaphysics felt rushed and the characterization cramped. I liked Siti and the dynamic between Siti and Fatma at the end of the story, but there wasn't enough of it.

As a world introduction, it does its job, and the non-European fantasy background is interesting enough that I'd be willing to read more, even without the incentive of reading all award winning novels. But "A Dead Djinn in Cairo" doesn't do more than its job. It might be worth skipping (I'll have to read the subsequent works to know for certain), but it won't take long to read and the price is right.

Followed by The Haunting of Tram Car 015.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-06-23

Last spun 2022-07-03 from thread modified 2022-06-24