I was pretty excited to finally pick up and find the time to read A Master of Djinn. I had previously been delighted by P. Djèlí Clark’s alternative, magical steampunk 1910s Cairo. The setting is just so damned fun. The novellas I had read before Master of Djinn—The Haunting of Tram Car 015 and A Dead Djinn in Cairo— were masterful in how they managed to be so descriptive for short form works, so was I curious as to how he would adapt an entire novel into this marvellous setting he’d created.
In the ‘Dead Djinn Universe,’ magic and the djinn were reintroduced to the world several decades years prior by the wizard Al-Jahiz, who vanished not long after. In the fifty or so years since, Al-Jahiz himself has become a bit of a mystical figure both in and outside of Egypt. Mystics and Estorics though are like like catnip to a certain brand of very-proper upper-class English gentlemen who like to consider themselves a bit of a dab hand at secret societies and all. Lord Worthington considered himself and his Brotherhood more than ready to take on the task of recovering the sacred wisdom of the ancients. Until a figure claiming to Al-Jahiz steps into a gathering of his Brotherhood
And twenty-four bodies are left burning from the inside out. Quite a way to open a novel!
This turns into a case for Fatima el- Sha’awari, an agent for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. For me, she last made an appearance in A Dead Djinn in Cairo and I was pleased to see her back. One of the youngest investigators and a woman to boot, Fatima grumps around like a well-seasoned detective from a British crime serial. Right down to her attire. (Complete with bowler hat!) And like most grumpy detective types, Fatima prefers to work alone. So you can guess what happens next: Fatima is told that she is sharing the case with a new agent, Hadia Abdel Hafez. (Siti, Fatima’s shadowy girlfriend, describes her as “Another Lady Spooky Boy”, which tickled me to no end.)
Now in an almost inverted trope, Fatima and Hadia do not go at each other at loggerheads as much as you would expect. Instead, after hashing out their issues, both get heavily involved in trying to work out who this supposed Al-Jahiz actually is, what they want in Cairo, what they want with the Jinn of Cairo, and what this might mean for the upcoming World Peace Summit.
Of all the Hugo nominees, I would like to say A Master of Djinn is my pick for adapting to a TV miniseries. Clark writes some very engaging action scenes and paired with some of my favourite detective tropes (which are flipped as often as played straight), I think it would make for a really fun few hours of television. And as I mentioned previously, the setting here is fantastic. It’s steampunk, but not overwhelmingly so. More attention is given to Egyptian culture (both ancient and more modern) here than airships, cogwheels and other little sproggety hallmarks of the genre, and that in itself is kind of refreshing
I also liked that there were more hints here in A Master of Djinn than in the previous two novellas about the overall implications magic has had on politics. Egypt is no longer under colonial control, and instead it’s doing it’s best to sell as the peak of modernity; and if you read carefully, India seems to be following suit. The stains of colonialism have not been scrubbed though, and they still leave a mark on much of Cairo’s society—including the Jinn. Additionally, a certain historical figure pops up later on in the novel who gives tantalising hints about the other ways that early 20th-century events post-magic may start diverging even further from our own. The subject of Women’s Liberation—while certainly touched on in the previous instalments—is also expanded on even further here, and across greater dimensions. (Mistake Haria for some sheltered woman because she is a hijabi and she will issue a swift correction. And Siti is more than just some heathen who keeps with the old gods.)
There are a couple of faults though. Less tightly put together than the novellas, I found that the novel’s pacing faltered a bit two-thirds of the way through, especially concerning a particular plot point before the climax. And with regards to the mystery of “Al-Jahiz”, while I was a little uncertain about their motivations for much of the novel, I worked it out before the detectives did. Their identity, on the other hand, was a little too easy deducted.
All that aside though, while less condensed than the novellas, A Master of Djinn is an excellent addition to the ‘Dead Djinn Universe’ that is just screaming for an adaption. I am, however, still struggling to judge if it should be read as a stand-alone or if reading the novellas first—particularly A Dead Djinn in Cairo—would help. My SciFi book club is tackling this one in about a month though, so maybe I can get back to everyone on that one.
(I also need to find a copy of The Angel of Khan el-Khalili, the missing third novella)
For Bingo, I am putting this under Time, due to the alternate timeline nature of the setting. I for one, am really curious as to how P. Djèlí Clark handles that next.