‘A Master Of Djinn’ is the full length novel that I’ve been waiting for from P. Djèli Clark and it exceeded my expectations.
He first snared my imagination with his novella, ‘The Black God’s Drums’ which displayed his original, colourful, anti-colonial imagination and his flare for writing tense action with strong female leads who aren’t cookie-cutter copies for other fantasy novels but which was over quickly and left me hungry for more.
Then I read his novellas based in an alternative Cairo in 1912 where the return of Djinn to the world has enabled Egypt to kick out the foreign powers and create a modern magic-enabled city with humans and Djinn as citizens.
In ‘A Dead Djinn In Cario’, I first met the flamboyant, talented and fearless Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities as she puzzled over the death of Djinn in a Cairo hotel room and ended up saving the world from a mad ‘angel’. It was fast, fresh and intoxicating but I knew I was just skimming a world that had a lot more to offer.
His next Cairo novella ‘The Haunting of Tram Car 015’ was twice as long and showed me that he’d startled to settle into this alternative reality. I could see it and taste and I relished its difference and its energy. This time he followed to make investigators of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities as they dealt with something haunting one of the autonomous tram cars, powered by Djinn magic, that whizzes through the sky above Cairo on a network of cables starts attacking passengers. I knew I was hooked then and I pre-ordered ‘A Master Of Djinn’.
A novel is quite a different proposition from a novella. The idea needs to be bigger, the plot more complex, the characters and their relationships need to develop, the world needs to become even more real and the pacing has to work – not just a sprint to the finish but a series of crescendos sweeping the reader along to a big finish. P. Djèli Clark managed all that and more.
Although the plot, twisted around a mystery of who is doing the killing and what they want, is complicated and delivers tension, exciting action and a satisfying solution to a mystery (which the author coached me to arrive at just a little ahead of the Big Reveal so that I could enjoy my own cleverness) what I liked most was that it is the perfect vehicle for displaying this colourful world and develop some strong, believable relationships while mocking imperialism, racism and misogyny.
The most powerful characters in the book are all women and they are magnificent in their diversity and individuality. The magic systems and magical races draw heavily on Persian and Arab myths that I know little about but which are made to seem real. I loved the way Cairo society is shown as normal (if normal means vibrant, chaotic and rapidly changing) while the Europeans, especially the British, are shown as out-of-touch and arrogant, convinced of their own superiority even as their power wanes.
One of the things that this book does that the earlier books didn’t was to let me learn more about the Djinn themselves. Typically, what I was shown was surprising, diverse and convincing.
I was delighted with this book. I hope that it’s the first in a series. I’ll be reading whatever P. Djèli Clark publishes.