A Master of Djinn (Book Review)
by P. Djèlí Clark
Fantasy (Steampunk/Alternative History), 2021
5 / 5 Stars
I received this book as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.
An intricately woven tale of fantasy and magic, A Master of Djinn manages to be both complex and easy to follow, with a compelling setting and enjoyable characters.
I didn’t realize this until after I read it, but there are two proceeding novellas that deal with the same characters/setting, but despite this, I didn’t find I was missing anything.
The story follows Fatma, an agent for a government sector focusing on the supernatural, in 1912 alternative history steampunk Egypt. She is tasked with tracking down a murderer who also claims to be the reincarnation of Al-Jahiz, a man who, fifty years prior, brought magical beings into our realm (who have since acclimatized to our societies but altered certain historical events). These magical beings range from Djinn, demons, angels, you name it. Fatma, along with her new rookie partner and help from her girlfriend, must figure out who or what this man is before he tears the city apart.
The characters in this novel are a lot of fun. For 1912, I was impressed with the number of female characters - usually in a period piece like this (despite it being alternative history), writers tend to think that women existed in the background. This simply wasn’t true - it’s just that all our media was created by men who tended to leave women out. Fatma still has to contend with these prejudices, but I liked how she’s already cemented in her role at the agency, so it’s not another rookie-woman-dealing-with-sexism story.
Fatma herself is a lot of fun - her obsession with wearing fashionable well-made suits was referenced enough to make it a personality trait but not enough it became repetitive. She was grouchy and a bit arrogant, which gave her flaws and kept her from being “perfect”. That being said, Fatma seems to miss small details, but I think it’s because she’s more of a big-picture person. The love story between her and Siti was realistic and enjoyable, though it fell a little flat for me in terms of passion - it felt more like they were a long-standing couple than a new development. The minor characters were fantastic, I loved Ahmad, the crocodile guy, and each minor character was interesting in their own right. I wanted a bit more depth from everyone, in truth, but that would have taken away from the part I really loved, which was the setting.
My favourite form of fantasy is when mythological creatures are part of the real world (but as a setting, not magical realism where everything is normal except for like one thing; I actually can’t stand that genre), so this was an absolute delight. There are all forms of magical creatures running around, with their own social castes and unique powers. Not only that, but the fact that this took place just before WWI makes my heart sing. What I really liked about this setting was how it’s clear magic has changed things (like Egypt not being occupied by the British and instead was a world power - if the novellas deal with that, I think I’ll have to pick them up) but WWI likely will still happen.
Tied to this, there are little bits of social commentary dropped here and there surrounding colonialism, racism, sexism, and prejudice, which weren’t overdone but definitely poignant.
The prose is fantastic. This book is so easy to read, despite the complexity of the world-building, and it doesn’t feel the need to “explain” things to Western readers, like certain foods or clothing. We all have google at our fingertips. Likewise, despite how bonkers the climax grows, it didn’t feel like the author lost control of the story. There are some really funny lines too, as well as some tongue-in-cheek moments. I laughed aloud in a few spots.
The plot did fall a little flat, mainly because a few of the plot twists, including the major one, were rather obvious to me. We don’t get enough red herrings to lead us away from the reveal and one of the minor twists was also something I had been wondering the entire time. Yet, the world was such a joy to be part of I didn’t even care about the mystery that much; I just wanted to see what cool-ass magical being showed up next! Check out my Booktube Channel: Sound & Fury Book Reviews!