A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark
A Master of Djinn (2021) is P. Djèlí Clark’s first novel in the world he’s created in several short stories and a novella, and it’s clear that the setting and its characters can easily handle the expanded length, making for an exciting plot combined with some sharp social criticism.
This novel, and the other works, are set in the early 1900’s, three decades after the scholar/mage al-Jahiz opened a portal between our world and another, bringing an influx of magical/fantastical creatures across, with the djinn not only settling relatively smoothly into Egypt and other countries, but also helping expel the Western imperialists, shrinking their empires and their ability to exploit non-Western cultures for growth, labor, materials, and prosperity, Thus, Egypt is now a “great power” while Britain, for instance, is a pale shadow of the empire they successfully created in our world’s timeline.
The main character, whom we’ve seen before, is Fatma, an agent at the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. In the bang of an opening, a cult formed by mostly white Europeans obsessed with Jahiz (the mystic had disappeared in 1873) are mysteriously burned to death (well, mysteriously to authorities, not the reader), and Fatma is called in to investigate. Much to her dismay, it turns out she’s been assigned a young, fresh-faced (i.e. not jaded yet) and eager partner (Hadia Abdel Hafez), who like Fatma herself, has become one of the very rare women agents. As the two investigate the cultists’ murders, obstacles are thrown up due to how closely the case touches a prominent British noble and his two children. Meanwhile, a masked figure claiming to be al-Jahiz returned is inciting the lower classes to violence, threatening to upset a delicate treaty negotiation amongst world leaders/diplomats assembling in Cairo, and even threatening the agency itself. Into this heady mix you can add the unpredictable and powerfully magical Siti, Fatma’s sometime-lover and worshiper of an ancient goddess, along with the odd creatures known as “Angels,” who may or may not be involved, some of the old gods who may or may not be taking a hand in the events, and others.
The mystery itself is well paced, interesting in its own right, and as all good mysteries do, creates more questions even as the investigation learns more answers. And while there is villainy at work, things are shaded more grey than simple black and white. One complaint is that I felt the identity of the masked figure was pretty clear very early on, which was a minor issue itself, but was more problematic given how keen an investigator Fatma is supposed to be. It seemed to me she should have figured things out long before the big reveal. Two other relatively minor issues were a far-too-convenient and illogical moment in the big battle scene that helped save the day and another moment that had too strong an echo for me of a scene in a Marvel film. But again, these were small annoyances and didn’t detract much from my enjoyment of the story. Meanwhile, the solid plot is set against a background of in-depth exploration of social, economic, and political issues that enhance the basic storyline with a measure of depth and seriousness.
As one might expect, colonialism/imperialism is one of the areas explored in A Master of Djinn. Beyond the actual politics involved, for instance, we also get a character bent on “proving his theory that Egypt’s ancient rulers were truly flaxen-haired relatives to the Anglo-Saxons, who held sway over the darker hordes of their realm,” because of course Egypt’s own people couldn’t have created such a great ancient civilization and such a powerful modern nation. Another character lectures how America’s natives “still need taming.” But Clark, here and elsewhere, does write with a nuanced sophistication. This is no simple “West bad, others good” formula. For all its joining the stage of world powers, Egypt is no utopia. The reason the masked figure is so easily and quickly able to inflame the populace is because there is, in fact, clear inequity and injustice in this society.
Race also comes under Clark’s sharp eye, as when Fatma and Hadia interview a wealthy and influential Egyptian woman who uses a slur for the dark-skinned Siti and refuses her entry into the house. And while America has no role to play here in the plot, we do see Americans in the form of a group of African American jazz players who left the US because of Jim Crow but note that Egypt is hardly free of racism itself. America also offers up a means for Clark to once again work in more nuanced mode, by having Hadia, who is lighter skinned than either Siti or Fatma, explain how, “When I was in America, everything was about color. Where you could eat. Where you had to ride … When I got back to Egypt, I couldn’t believe I’d not noticed it before … In the Alexandria EFS, none of the officers were darker than me. At our protests, Nubian and Sudanese women marched in the back … Maybe we aren’t so different than America after all.”
Meanwhile, beyond the references to Fatma’s struggles in achieving her position as a woman, mirrored by Hadia’s own same, we also get references to the Suffragist movement, the EFS (Egyptian Feminist Sisterhood), and some other criticisms, some more overt than others, of the patriarchal system in place across most of the world.
Clark has created a rich universe to play in and filled it with engaging and three-dimensional characters (I didn’t even mention one of my favorite characters, an acolyte of the crocodile god, whose portrayal is full of depth, poignancy, loss, and deep questions of worship and selfhood). While this storyline is resolved at the end of A Master of Djinn, it opens up a lot of questions about players in this world, and I certainly look forward to future stories of any length Clark chooses to share with us in his DEAD DJINN UNIVERSE.
I must read this. I had the title wrong!
It’s already on my list. I’m interested in researching djinn.