One paragraph into P. Djèlí Clark’s “A Master of Djinn,” the chronically truant self-preservation muscle in my brain jerked to life and hit pause. The novel is too well crafted, too interesting, too readable. It’s a magical detective story set in pre-World War I Cairo narrated by no-nonsense special agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi and her plucky, paperwork-loving, hijab-wearing junior, Hadia Abdel Hafez. It is set in the same world as other books from the same author but is a stand-alone story. From its base components alone, mathematically speaking, “A Master of Djinn” almost overwhelmed me (and my exam study schedule).
Once started, “A Master of Djinn” is a fast read. Clark creates a compelling fantasy setting full of representation. Despite being marketed as steampunk, the novel is a detective, police procedural at its core. When twenty members of a secret society are brutally murdered, special agent Fatma and her new partner Hadia are tasked with locating the killer. Together, they unravel a larger magical plot within their Egyptian home city.
Set before WWI, the novel imagines a world before American hegemony and nuclear power. In Fatma’s metropolitan Cairo, the local zeitgeist is one of possibility, with energy wild and unpredictable. The world is less surveilled, less formed at the turn of the century. But Clark does not settle for easy first impressions of a halcyon past. Considering the many social identities of the characters, the novel would be incomplete without a consideration of power structures and imperialism. Clark mindfully engages with the past, forcing his characters to move through a world recognizable in its colonialism, colorism and religion. Fatma’s friend Benny, a Jim Crow-era American ex-pat, helps contextualize and ground Clark’s expansive world. Perhaps, instead of the Djinns and Priestesses, the most fantastical aspect of Clark’s novel is its ability to recall a tantalizingly vast, flawed and cautiously hopeful world.
“A Master of Djinn” is an amazingly consistent read. Clark is a competent storyteller and a master of unobtrusive style. While the ultimate mystery is not hard to puzzle out three-quarters in, the characters are vibrant and the plot is sound. Some writers have stylistic ticks that require more deliberate reading; fantasy writers, in particular, have an unfortunate tendency to “info-dump,” front-loading their worldbuilding and characters. Most fantasy classics require some measure of indelicate, brute mental force to break into the center of the novel. Clark breaks that mold, presenting a digestible and compelling fantasy landscape. His writing exemplifies how such a novel should be paced, most notably in how he distributes and buffers the customary info-dump hurdles.
Clark introduces the main character, Fatma, over the course of one chapter. It’s with a deft, careful hand that Clark contours and colors this LGBTQ+, suit-wearing, cane-sword-wielding, overworked government agent. Clark approaches each character with care, depicting them as dynamic, multifaceted characters that are informed, rather than defined by their social identities. They feel authentic. Clark is cheeky with his characters. Fatma’s junior agent endearingly sports a fun, modern bright blue headscarf as a display of her progressive values.
Because the novel follows the detective-novel, CSI-esque structure, one might misread it as an entertaining but run-of-the-mill iteration — not quite radical but also not derivative. However, Clark’s characterizations and attention to detail positions “A Master of Djinn” solidly above its contemporaries. The only downfall of his attention to character and storytelling is how unsustainable producing ten more similar novels would be. Ideally, there would be as many “A Master of Djinn” entries as there are “Dresden Files” novels. Alas, the rich world and characters leave room only for a sequel or so.
Clark’s novel is a prime fantasy book complete with a unique comprehension of identity and personhood. While reading “A Master of Djinn,” time flows eagerly past, weaving through bustling, magical Cairo streets. The novel’s concept is uncomplicated and naturally integrates Arabic mythology with historical, fantasy settings. Clark’s dynamic characters and consideration of historical power imbalances, class and racism are a balm to the tired fantasy reader.
Daily Books Beat Editor Elizabeth Yoon can be reached at email@example.com.