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 was criminal in this modern age that stairs should be allowed to yet exist– when lifts could carry passengers in comfort.”
Reading this book was a treat. And what’s better is it was a two-for-one. It was an epic fantasy and murder-mystery all rolled into one. I started with A dead djinn in Cairo (the prequel novella) because somebody in my book club said that was a great introduction to the MC – Fatma el-Sha’arawi. I loved the prequel novella and immediately jumped into this book. Also, the novella is not required reading and A Master of Djinn stands alone very well on its own but I definitely recommend it. It is available for free on the TOR website.
This is my first 5 star read of 2024 and first 10/10 on Fanfiaddict. I’m just going to ramble on about all of the highlights in this book for me. Firstly, I love the buddy cop trope and this book had the best buddy cop genre convention – grumpy/loner senior cop and the bright-eyed recruit that wants to learn. Fatma el-Sha’arawi and Hadia Hafez are such a delight to follow. Fatma el-Sha’arawi especially with just one novella and one book has become one of my favorite ever fantasy protagonists. A suit & bowler hat wearing detective with a cane who talks down Djinns and deals with supernatural threats even though she has no powers of her own. What’s not to like?
“Fatma blinked at the tirade. Of all the djinn these two had to go and wake up, it had to be a bigot.”
The second highlight is the writing. Not since NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season have I adored the writing in a book so much. The Fifth Season is tonally a very different book to A Master of Djinn but the writing in TFS is so elegant that it felt like each word, sentence, and paragraph was crafted. A Master of Djinn feels the same way. The fantasy elements, the steampunk elements, the mystery element, the wit, the romance all balance and complement each other so well making this a masterpiece of speculative fiction. Also it’s a very funny book, I’m sure there’s a joke at least every other page. For all intents and purposes, this is a slow-burn mystery fantasy book but I didn’t notice it being slow for a single moment because of how much I was enjoying it.
“It is a terrible thing, this politics of being perceived as respectable. To be forced to view your frailties through the eyes of others. A terrible thing.”
And finally world-building. I absolutely love it too. The story is set in a steampunk version of Cairo in an alternate universe version of our world where Egypt is a superpower during the early 1900s. And it is chock-full of fantasy elements: Metallic Angels, Djinn, Jann, Ghuls, Rukhs, Ifrits, Golems, Inter-dimensional portals, final-fantasy eikon fight scenes and more. Outside of the fantasy elements, the city feels so real too. In the best use of ‘the devil is in the details’ there are so many minor touches all over that lend authenticity. From authentic sounding Arabic names to actual middle eastern food dishes, to borrowing from Islamic culture and traditions and homages to Egyptian mythology and other African and Middle Eastern stories and artists- the author’s research and effort is exhibited beautifully.
“If you steal, steal a camel. And if you love, love the moon.”
I cannot accurately express how much I enjoyed reading this book but I am almost immediately going to read the other two novellas set in this world and I sincerely hope that TOR commissions so many more books/novellas in this world. This is also going to be my top recommended book to fantasy readers in 2024.