P. Djèlí Clark is one of the most exciting authors in SFF right now who stole our hearts with his stories set in an alternate historical version of Cairo where djinn live among humans and the supernatural needs its own police. My personal favorite of his works is the amazing Ring Shout (which is going to win all the awards this year, I’m sure of it!), but I was nonetheless excited to read Clark’s first full-length novel. Someone who builds entire worlds in a novella can only do great stuff with a novel.
A MASTER OF DJINN
by P. Djèlí Clark
Published: Tordotcom/Orbit, 2021
eBook: 401 pages
Audiobook: 15 hours 37 minutes
Series: Dead Djinn Universe #3
My rating: 6.75/10
Opening line: Archibald James Portendorf disliked stairs.
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…
It isn’t often that I discover an author through a work of short fiction, but with P. Djèlí Clark, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his novellas and then continue to read some short stories as well. The world he has set up for the Fatma el-Sha’arawi series is this really cool blend of alternate history, steampunk Egypt with djinn and magic and a supernatural police. I mean, what’s not to love? A full-length novel set in this world was exactly what us SFF readers were hoping for.
As much as I was looking forward to this book, as difficult do I now find it to talk about it. On the one hand, it was a lot of fun to read. On the other hand, it has many problems, some of which bothered me more than others but the overall feeling is a mix of disappointment (because there was so much potential) and indifference. This was fun to read and I enjoyed myself but it’s nothing like Ring Shout, a story that still sticks in my head and gives me goosebumps when I think about it.
This starts as a really cool murder mystery. When an entire cult gets burned alive (only their bodies though, their clothes stay intact), it’s clear that this is a case for Fatma el-Sha’arawi. She’s right on the case when a partner is thrust upon her. Fatma prefers to work alone so the fact that this new partner is a woman doesn’t help to say her. Who neeeds a rookie trailing along when there’s supernatural murderers to catch and an impostor al-Jahiz to uncover? But as anyone would notice, it’s the perfect recipe for a buddy cop story. I was actually looking forward to the Hadia and Fatma dynamics and watching them grow closer over the course of the police procedural. But that just goes to show that expectations are a dangerous thing and most of them weren’t fulfilled in this case.
First of all, Fatma and Hadia don’t actually do all that much policing and that made them both appear more passive than they should be. The whole police procedural is them showing up somewhere, either being told straight up where to go next or being given a clue by somebody else and then moving on to the next place or person where, in turn, somebody will give them vital information and send them on their merry way. This repeats until things become so obvious even I figured them out. Okay, maybe this book’s focus isn’t supposed to be the actual mystery or the police work. That’s fine. The world has much more to offer of course. Cool and diverse characters, for example.
Except Clark departs from his usual way of writing characters and turns certain things up to eleven. Fatma’s bowler hats and English suits are a nice gimmick but, let’s face it, they aren’t really important to the plot, especially at the time this story takes place. She has already gained a lot of respect from fellow police (a fact I didn’t quite understand judging from the previous story but okay) and her choice of wardrobe is there mainly just for fun. We get a lot of wardrobe changes in A Master of Djinn and most of them have no impact on the plot or characters at all.
What I found the most interesting – a plot string that got sidelined very quickly in favor of blowing up the murder mystery into a let’s-save-the-world kind of problem – was the relationship between Fatma and her new partner Hadia as well as Fatma and her sort of girlfriend Siti. Fatma is… let’s say reluctant to accept a partner at all, so when she is told she has to work with the super eager hijab-wearing Hadia, she is less than thrilled. The clash between the two was to be expected and I was looking forward to reading about how they learn to work together nonetheless, how they bond over time, how they solve this mystery together. There is some of that, but for large chunks of the book, this part of the plot seems to be completely forgotten. The fresh partners spend a lot of time apart.
I did adore Fatma and Siti’s relationship (even if the audiobook narrator gave Siti an overly seductive voice all the time) and how they deal with the challenges dand dangers they encounter along the way. And I’m not even talking about the fact that they are two women who love each other but life-threateneing danger and life-shatttering revelations. It felt like they have a history that happened prior to this book, they felt comfortable enough in their ways, but they were still a fresh enough couple that they can learn new things about each other. This was probably my favorite part of the entire book.
I was a little flustered by the direction the plot took in general. Like I said, it starts out one way – as a simple enough, albeit supernatural and quite disturbing – murder mystery. But the more stations Fatma checks out on her way to the solution, the more people, organizations, religions, and historical artifacts get intertwined into it all. Normally, that’s something I love about books. Tales that seem small at first but then grow larger and larger and only show the whole picture at the very end. For some reason that I can’t quite define, I didn’t enjoy it here. I felt let down, betrayed even because my expectations weren’t fulfilled at all. There was just too much of everything crammed into too few pages – and yes, I’m aware I’m talking about a 400 page book. But I didn’t get the buddy cop tale, I didn’t get two clever policewomen actually working their way toward the truth, and I didn’t get the cool “and here’s how the murderer did it” at the end, at least not in the way I had hoped because the murderer had all sorts of other plans.
But as negative as that sounds, I can’t say that there was a moment while reading (or rather listening to) this book that I didn’t enjoy at least to some degree. Suheyla El-Attar does a great job with voices and accents, her reading is engaging and with the exception of Siti’s constant sexy voice, I adored the audiobook version. I’ve been writing/deleting/rewriting this review for a few weeks now because I just don’t know how to feel about this book. I liked it but I also wanted more. But don’t think for a second that this will keep me from pouncing on whatever P. Djèlí Clark publisheds next.
MY RATING: 6.75/10 – Good to very good… I guess.