Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Note: The author’s middle name includes two diacritical marks. I typed up this review in Word, which has special characters for both of them, but I have no idea if they will survive transferring this into WordPress.
A Master of Djinn is the first full-length novel in P. Djèlí Clark’s Dead Djinn series, which starts with “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” and continues through “The Angel of Khan el-Khalili” and “The Haunting of Tram Car 015.” These stories are set in a version of early twentieth century Egypt in which the barrier between the world of mortals and that of magical beings has been pierced, allowing magic to return to our world. For Egypt, this meant the return of the djinn. And while the djinn can be troublesome and outright dangerous, they did help the Egyptians expel European colonial powers, allowing their country to become an independent major power. A Master of Djinn begins with the mass murder of a group attempting to uncover the secrets of the man who brought about this great change, a mystic known only as al-Jahiz. Shortly thereafter, an individual wielding great magical power appears and claims to be al-Jahiz returned. It falls to the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities to deal with the fallout of these events.
As expected from his previous work, Clark brings the steampunk Cairo setting to vivid, bustling life. He renders the sights, sounds, and smells of the city with great clarity. But the heart of the story is the city’s population: humans from all over Africa and the Middle East (and a few from further afield), plus djinn. Cairo hasn’t always had an easy time adjusting to being a cosmopolitan metropolis, and the book’s antagonist takes advantage of those tensions.
Speaking of which, the presentation of the antagonist is another thing Master of Djinn does well. They’re smart, using the pre-existing divisions among Cairo’s citizens to turn their enemies against each other. We also see them using deception and obfuscation to keep their foes disoriented. So many stories only have the heroes winning because the villains seemed to leave their brains at home. In Master of Djinn, Fatma’s victory truly feels earned.
There are some very nice smaller details, too. Throughout the book, Fatma thinks of her mother’s sayings that might be pertinent to the situation. The first time she directly encounters the man who claims to be al-Jahiz, she quotes one of them. I liked this trait of hers and the payoff of having her state one of the maxims out loud after having repeatedly thought of them. There are a couple of phrases that are used so often they get repetitive, such as saying that a character’s eyes “rounded” in surprise, but this is a tiny quibble. Overall, this was a really fun read, and I hope it won’t be the last novel Clark writes in this setting.