In A Master of Djinn, writer P. Djeli Clark takes his readers back to Cairo, 1912, and a world where magical creatures such as djinn have become a normal part of life along with their incredible magical mechanical inventions. This book, which is a full-length novel rather than a novella like his previous works, features Agent Fatma el-Sha’arwi, special investigator with the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. She was the main character in A Dead Djinn in Cairo, and it’s wonderful to have this character back! As usual, Clark serves up a thrilling story full of intrigue and danger while also addressing power structures, patriarchy, and the rights of minorities.
Lord Alistair Worthington, a wealthy industrial magnate and Englishman living in Cairo, has a special love for all things “native” in Egypt and imagines himself an international peace-broker. He is hosting an upcoming peace conference in Cairo, including the leaders of Egypt, Germany, France, and Russia, but in the days preceding this conference, he also convenes a meeting of his secret society. The Hermetic Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz, which has secret symbols and an exclusive membership of wealthy white European men and a couple of token “natives”, is meant to uncover the wisdom of Al-Jahiz, the Soudanese mystic who opened the world to magic and then disappeared decades ago. To uncover this wisdom, Worthington and the Brotherhood track down and acquire rare artifacts associated with Al-Jahiz. Worthington seems to really believe that what he is doing will uncover truths and wisdom to serve the world, but most of the people in the society are only there to ingratiate themselves to Worthington. At this meeting, however, something extraordinary and terrifying occurs — a man wearing black robes and a golden mask appears and declares that he is none other than Al-Jahiz. He is accompanied by an ifrit, that is, a djinn of smokeless fire, who incinerates everyone in attendance. Worthington’s adult children, who were not in attendance, survive, as does one eye-witness, a local man who spreads the word among Egypt’s poor that Al-Jahiz has returned to bring justice.
Enter Special Investigator Fatma and the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. Fatma and her colleagues are convinced that this Al-Jahiz is an imposter, but how is he able to command djinn as he does? The ministry and local police team up against him, but the imposter has a lot of support from the poor of Cairo, and this will lead to clashes between authorities and common people that don’t look good for the ministry or Egypt on the verge of an international peace conference. Fatma, although only 24, has a lot of experience with matters involving djinn, and she has a reputation for excellence and success in her department, but she is thrown for a loop when her boss assigns her a partner — Agent Hadia, a new young female recruit. Fatma makes it clear she works alone and doesn’t want help, but Hadia is determined and will prove herself invaluable.
As Fatma and Hadia pursue leads on the imposter, they find themselves relying on an unusual group of sources for help. Cairo is at the heart of magic in the world, and that means djinn, but also angels and other magical creatures. Hadia is a devout Muslim, but a number of sects from the “old religion” still exist underground in Egypt. Cults to Egyptian gods/goddesses like Anubis, Sobek, Sekhmet and Hathor operate in secret due to prejudice against them (they’re seen as “idolators” and “infidels”), but they wield power and important information of their own. One of Fatma’s best sources is a devotee of Hathor named Siti, who is also her lover and an amazing fighter. The relationship between Fatma and Siti that began in A Dead Djinn in Cairo is further developed here, and Fatma will learn things about Siti that shock her and threaten both their relationship and the investigation.
A Master of Djinn, while entertaining the reader with a thrilling fantasy and whodunnit, also gets the reader to think about issues that are pertinent to our world today. Relationships among women, whether it’s Fatma and Hadia, or Fatma and Siti, or wealthy women and poor women, are important to this story and they are complicated. Class and religious beliefs complicate those relationships, and women don’t always stand up for one another because of it. The relationship between Fatma and Hadia is particularly well done, in my opinion, with Hadia confronting Fatma about her own prejudice. Class and race are at the forefront of this novel, too. The colonial powers feel themselves at a disadvantage vis a vis Egypt, and Europeans in Egypt display an arrogance and insensitivity toward local people that is all too familiar — appropriating local culture, grabbing up art and artifacts for some kind of play at being spiritual, presuming understanding of a culture that is far beyond them. And then there are the djinn themselves. Djinn are incredibly powerful entities, and their magic and mechanical expertise built Cairo. Yet, they are not free and they face limitations that mortals cannot see or understand. Djinn are also divided among themselves; some work with mortals, others hide themselves away, hoping to outlast mortal rule on earth. It would be a mistake to think that all djinn are alike or want the same things.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I recommend that you read A Dead Djinn in Cairo first if you plan to pick this up, as there are characters and plot points that intersect with A Master of Djinn. I am hoping Clark continues with this series and in the future will reveal more about the Egyptian religious sects that were featured here. I would recommend this for beach reading.