A Master of Djinn – P. Djèlí Clark
Orbit, paperback, £8.99
Review by Lottie Lightfoot
A spellbinding blend of magic, murder, and mayhem, A Master of Djinn is a must-read for the summer. Set in Cairo, Egypt, in the early 1910s, we’re introduced to Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi, a headstrong, lone wolf special investigator for the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. The universe is one of magic and steampunk, where djinn roam the streets, mechanical angels exist, and illusions and trickery are commonplace. Egypt is a modern world power, having been able to fight against colonialism with the aid of the djinn.
The book opens with the slaughter of The Brotherhood of al-Jahiz – a secret boys club dedicated to al-Jahiz, the mysterious sage who introduced magic into the world by opening up doors to other realms before disappearing seemingly for good. The suspect? An imposter pretending to be al-Jahiz himself, sowing seeds of destruction and dissent wherever he goes. From here, we’re introduced to Fatma, one of the few women agents in government – and the youngest to be admitted. Teaming up with her to solve the case is her rookie partner Agent Hadia, who’s just as good at paperwork as she is at sword fighting, and Siti, Fatma’s mysterious lover who may not be quite what she seems. They’re soon on a race against the clock to solve the murder and prevent the imposter from wreaking any more havoc on the city. Their journey is aplomb with mystery, action, and plenty of African and Middle Eastern lore.
On the surface, the book is a mind-bending story that expertly weaves folktales, religion, and magic. At its heart, A Master of Djinn is an old fashioned whodunnit that addresses issues of racism, colourism, sexism, colonialism, and cultural appropriation with no-nonsense pragmatism and razor-sharp wit.
A Master of Djinn isn’t a perfect book, as author P. Djèlí Clark gets to grips with transitioning from short stories to full-length novels. It’s still good fun, more narrative-driven rather than character-driven, with beautiful and thorough descriptions that really makes the story come to life. The characters themselves are intriguing, though they aren’t as fully explored as I would’ve liked. The book is also fairly lengthy at 400 pages, dragging in some parts. But for a debut novel, it’s a winner.