P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn returns to the alternate Cairo of 1912 featured in A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015. This time Clark has given us a full-length novel that offers much deeper insight into the richness of this remarkable world. Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities is back and has to solve a spectacular case of mass murder committed by magical means.
Identifying the killer, though, is only one step in uncovering a terrifying plot that could rock Cairo and the world forever. A Master of Djinn is great historical fantasy/mystery that makes a Cairo full of djinn, ghuls, flaming spirits and terrifying angels powerfully real. But it also has a light touch and humor that can be tricky to blend with the action and sense of urgency essential to building tension. Clark is a master at striking just the right balance. This is a book to get lost in, one of my favorites of the past year.
In the 1870s of this alternate Cairo, a superhuman being named al-Jahiz broke through the divide that separates this world from the one populated by djinn, ifrit, angels, and other transdimensional creatures capable of terrifying magic. After that everything changed in Cairo and elsewhere.
Magical beings, especially djinn, steampunk robotics and angels housed in clockwork devices became a part of everyday life, and the Ottomans and British were replaced by an Egyptian king. Peace was maintained, especially with the help of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. In 1912, we are a few decades into this new reality, and everything is humming along, until al-Jahiz, or maybe an imposter, reappears to become the master of djinn and magic and begins to shake the world to its foundations.
Since the story is a mystery, I don’t want to spoil it by revealing too much. As a long-time reader of mystery and detective fiction, however, I feel a little frustrated when Fatma gets diverted from her compelling case or ignores a screamingly obvious clue, yet that was OK. Because this is no police procedural. It’s a light-touch exploration of the fantastic that moves from one remarkable action sequence to the next. And like any good story, it winds up with many layers of action and surprise in a succession of climactic scenes that build on each other.
The cast of characters are unforgettable. The djinn are all amazing. Most of them are giants and capable of smashing things to bits, but they have been charmingly domesticated, at least most of them. There is Siwa, master of illusion, who can with a wave of a hand transform his seedy little apartment into a suite of cavernous rooms full of interesting books and magical objects. He has a most unfortunate gambling problem that gets him and the story into deep trouble.
There is Zoros, the finicky librarian of the Ministry who jealously guards the treasures under his supervision, yet can become a raging beast if he falls under the influence of malign forces. And there is Siti, who is half human, half djinn and entirely Fatma’s lover. In her djinn state, she appears as tall with black glistening skin and red curving horns and crimson-on-gold feline eyes.
Speaking of appearance, the clothes are amazing and give us introductions to the important characters. Fatma loves British suits, dazzling ties and bowler hats, picking each outfit to match the occasion. Even in the midst of battling demons with Siti, she can’t help observing that they are both wearing the same outfits they had during the last such encounter. Fatma in her light gray suit with matching vest, chartreuse tie and red-on-white pin-striped shirt, (and of course her silver headed sword cane) and Siti (human here) wearing the same brown boots, tan breeches and kaftan.
The clothes are right for the characters but don’t dominate who they are. They’re charming and appropriate. Of course, there are many characters who wear their arrogance and pretense in their uniforms, especially the European heads of state who gather in Cairo for a peace conference. And there are the disguises of those who don’t want their real identities to be known. The clothes are not just superficial fashion or costume but bring out essential traits, often, in the case of Fatma, her wonderful sense of humor.
Given the historical period, despite its alternate reality, there is a lot in this book about colonialism and slavery. Even the djinn and other demons get tired of being under the control of spells and more powerful entities. The British, no longer overlords of people of color, nevertheless retain their sense of entitlement and assumption of their right to control affairs. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that no one who wants to control other people, let alone the world, comes off well in this story.
A Master of Djinn is a delight from beginning to end, and I hope that P. Djèlí Clark soon brings us further adventures of Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi and the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities.