P Djèlí Clark wrote two novellas set in this universe before A Master Of Djinn, and I think that if you preferred A Dead Djinn In Cairo to The Haunting Of Tram Car 015 then you’ll definitely enjoy this one too. Like the prior novellas, his first full-length book is about mystical goings-on in an alternate history, steampunk Egypt that shook off the colonizing yoke when Al-Jahiz, a Soudanese mystic, pierced the veil between worlds and allowed djinn and other creatures of legend to freely walk our mortal plane. Now Egypt is a burgeoning world power due to its enhanced citizenry. With any new source of industry, however, must come the requisite government oversight.
Enter the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, responsible for overseeing and regulating any legal issues involving same. Fatma el-Sha’arawi was once notorious for being its youngest female agent — and for a style of dress that screams young Western dandy — but has plenty of experience in solving supernatural crimes and saving the world. She prefers to work solo, but is often aided by her girlfriend, Siti, the Nubian worshiper of Sekhmet whose temple status seems to have lent her preternatural powers of her own. The last thing Fatma needs or wants is a rookie partner, in the form of fresh academy graduate Hadia, whose sky blue hijab hints at her less than conservative approach to a society where women traditionally wear more somber-colored head coverings.
Despite Fatma’s reluctance, their first official case together is the slaughter of an entire Brotherhood devoted to Al-Jahiz. Headed by Alistair Worthington, one of the richest men in Cairo as well as a prominent English citizen, the secretive Brotherhood collected items said to have belonged to the long-disappeared mystic. When Al-Jahiz himself reportedly turns up to one of their meetings to violently display his displeasure, the entire city looks poised to riot, as the same mystical figure is also making appearances in the streets, preaching against foreign interference and decadence. With an international peace summit scheduled just days away, Fatma and Hadia must get to the bottom of this before the impostor brings more bloodshed to the streets of their beloved country.
So here’s the deal: Mr Clark tries. I’m really glad that he’s writing Afrocentric, Islamophilic fantasy featuring strong female leads, with a rich and textured world-building that emphasizes harmony and compassion, while denouncing warmongering and slavery. Which, I think, is why the feminism often feels a bit college-level in comparison. This is an Egypt where almost all the women wear head coverings but are also totally encouraging of a woman who dresses in suits carrying on a lesbian romance with a worshiper of the old gods? While I personally think this is pretty awesome, I don’t understand why a fantasy environment like this one would also feature a heroine who flinches every time someone seemingly heteronormative comes into her daily orbit. Fatma has a lot of assumptions about Hadia that make it look like she has a lot of experience with asshole hijabi women judging her or worse for being who she is, but absolutely nothing about the setting as written lends itself to this tension. I was also not impressed with Hadia, at least not in the way I enjoyed how her counterpart, Onsi, proved himself to his superior, Hamed, in THoTC015. Hadia’s a bit of a complainer, and I wish Fatma too was as bold on the inside as she goes to such pains to appear. I totally understand putting up a brave front, but finely tailored Western suits in multiple color combinations are A Choice in the Egyptian heat, you know?
Also, I was extremely unimpressed by their detective skills. It was glaringly obvious as soon as they had the ledger entries who the bad guy was, so I spent most of the back half of the book waiting with varying degrees of patience for them to figure it out too. I did really enjoy how the world-building was extended to the European powers tho, which are learning how to harness their own native spirits, and I’m looking forward to reading more of this universe in future. I’m rather hoping the next book will feature Agents Hamed and Onsi, who seem less like awkward character ideas and more like actual people, both in their novella and in this book where they appear as supporting cast members.
A Master Of Djinn (Dead Djinn Universe #1) by P. Djèlí Clark was published May 11 2021 by Tordotcom and is available from all good booksellers, including