The first thing that I noticed about P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn is the way it opens. There’s an immediate hook to the narrative, as Clark opens in an archetypal way for the mystery its pages are contained. We’re introduced to a secret society and the mysterious outsider who arrives in their midst — and then goes about murdering them all. Thus the mystery that protagonist Fatma el-Sha’arawi must solve.
At its heart, A Master of Djinn is a mystery novel — albeit one where the potential suspects include djinn, angels, and robotic beings. It’s also an impressive example of worldbuilding and — for readers of A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 — it also feels like something of a crossover event, bringing the characters and motifs Clark has written about in his previous work together and heightening the scale.
Let’s start with the state of the world in which this novel is set. The place is Cairo; the year is 1912. In some ways, this 1912 represents the one in our own history — Wilhelm II is currently the German head of state, for instance. But in this timeline, a man known as al-Jahiz connected humans to the otherworldly beings that share this world forty years earlier — leading to the presence of djinn and angels in Egypt, and others further afield. (Wilhelm II is accompanied by a goblin for international gatherings, for instance.)
This leads to an upending of the geopolitical order, with Egypt becoming a major international power as a result. (Lord Alastair Worthington, a member of the society whose massacre sets the novel in motion, is a man with close ties to both the British and Egyptian governments.) The vision of Cairo that this leads to is a fascinating one, where magic and science have heightened the level of technology in some ways, and which Muslims, Christians, and believers in the old gods all call home. But Clark is also mindful not to make this feel utopian; one of the running motifs in this book is an investigation of the disparate levels of inequality in this version of Cairo, in which race, gender, and class all come into play.
Much of that factors into what makes Fatma a compelling protagonist. Her on-again, off-again relationship with Siti, a mysterious woman she met on a previous case, helps direct the reader to the flaws in her society that she might not have otherwise noticed. So too are her dealings with her new partner in the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, Agent Hadia — someone who, like Fatma, is one of the handful of women working for the agency.
As Fatma and Hadia continue their investigation — sometimes with Siti’s assistance — of whoever is claiming to be al-Jahiz, the imposter continues to make appearances at various events throughout Cairo. Soon enough, the imposter demonstrates a number of preternatural skills, including commanding a shadowy figure that can duplicate itself repeatedly and — as the novel’s title suggests — controlling a number of djinn, including one that can in turn ignite virtually anything.
The procedural aspects of A Master of Djinn keep the plot moving forward, as well as helping to heighten the sense of place that abounds in this book. That extends to the characters; Fatma and other allude to the events of A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015, with the former serving to introduce a couple of plot complications that play out in this novel.
Occasionally, Fatma thinks back to her father and his knowledge of watchmaking. It’s an image that comes through in various ways in this narrative, from the ways in which the heroes’ wide-ranging sets of skills all play a part in the novel’s climax to the precision with which its plot is executed. But that’s just one aspect of what makes this book so compelling; another are the languorous passages in which Clark describes the city’s different districts.
Cité-Jardin had been built by a djinn architect. He’d lived in this world before the coming of al-Jahiz and had sailed off with Napoleon’s armies to see Paris. He returned to Egypt after the Emerging and convinced the new government to let him design a development—one he claimed would speak to Cairo’s place as an international city. The result was modernity accented with inspiration drawn from the natural world. The buildings—mostly embassies—were carved with leaves or repeating vines. The houses were mansions: multistory villas with archways and columns in the likeness of bundled reeds, all encircled by a forest of trees and bushes. Incandescent electric lamps lined the roads, like saplings crowned with orbs of colored glass.
There’s a lot of history in this single paragraph, combined with a meticulous level of detail. Clark makes this world feel thoroughly alive, and the brief glimpses he shows of how this alternate timeline has affected various nations around the world suggests countless stories to be told. This is a narrative that includes heads of state and expatriate jazz musicians, and nearly all of them are drawn with memorable qualities. Clark even gives the reader a sense of the dynamics within the doomed Hermetic Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz, the secret society whose destruction opens the novel.
We’re currently living through a moment where nearly every form of storytelling faces an implicit question: could this become a universe unto itself? What’s tricky there is that not everything created with that intention necessarily has the strength and the structure to support an interconnected array of narratives. Thankfully, P. Djèlí Clark has demonstrated that this fictional Cairo — and this fictional timeline — is home to memorable stories on an individual level and is a vibrant engine for creating more should he desire to. Precisely detailed and thoroughly immersive — and featuring a sharply-drawn investigator at its center — this is engrossing in its own right and in terms of potential stories to come.
A Master of Djinn
by P. Djèlí Clark
Tordotcom Books; 400 p.