Book Review: A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark Is A Magical Alternate History
P. Djèlí Clark is the author of last year’s acclaimed novel Ring Shout, and has built a steady resume of fantastical stories over the years. Several of his stories take place in the world of his Dead Djinn series, and now they culminate in his first full length novel in the world – A Master of Djinn. The alternate-history novel has elements of steampunk, urban fantasy, and is rife with magical beings beyond comprehension. But what struck me most about this novel, was how incredibly fun and adventurous it was. It is fast-paced and exciting, with gorgeous prose and a refreshing perspective on the world. Let’s take a deeper look at A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark, and find out why this title should be on your fantasy reading lists.
An Alternate History of Modern Egypt
Image via Tor/Forge
A Master of Djinn takes place in Cairo in 1912. Egypt is one of the leading world powers, partially due to their newfound grasp of old magics. In this alternate history, a mythical figure known as Al-Jahiz broke open the barrier between the human world and the worlds of magical beings. Djinn live amongst humans and create wonders. There are goblins riding around on the shoulders of German dignitaries. There are also beings of immense power and mystery who call themselves Angels. And there are ancient gods slumbering in tombs, ready to awaken in the heart of a worthy follower. The story plays around with mythology in way that feels real and grounded. It also embraces the extremely fantastical, and often surreal nature of these magical beings.
The novel opens in the middle of the action, at a tipping point for the world at large and the characters involved. There is history to the world that feels lived in. The grand event that brought the djinn into the world has already happened. We enter at a point in this timeline where magic has become commonplace. The protagonist Agent Fatma works for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. We first meet her negotiating with a powerful djinn who has been awoken from his ancient slumber. She must bargain with him in order to prevent a magical incident.
Powerful Women Protagonists Put In The Work In A Master of Djinn
Photo by Jackson David on Unsplash
From the beginning, Fatma is shown to be clever, intuitive, bold, and a force to be reckoned with. And she must be, as one of the few women who works for the Ministry. She has always had to be better at her job than anyone else. When she is a given a partner in the form of another young woman – Hadia – who looks up to her, Fatma is resistant. She refuses to rely on anyone else, always going it alone. But part of the character growth that is so powerful to see is the way Fatma learns to work with and trust other people.
Hadia remains primarily a foil for Fatma throughout the book. But we do slowly get to know her and understand her as Fatma does. In contrast, there is the character of Siti. I know that there are several prequel short stories written by P. Djèlí Clark set in this world that further expands on the origin of this relationship. But going into this book, I had not read them. And refreshingly, I didn’t need to read them to pick up the thread of the interpersonal relationship between these two women.
Siti and Fatma have worked together on cases in the past, although Siti is not involved with the Ministry directly. It is clear that the two of them had a pre-existing relationship that is easy to slip into and understand. Their relationship is very closely tied to the larger story, and themes of acceptance and understanding. Of revealing your true self to others, and hoping you’ll be accepted. And the tenderness and sweetness of their romance provides an emotional core for the book that is extremely compelling.
Magical Creatures Roam A Complicated Political Landscape
Photo by Omar Elsharawy on Unsplash
I have read a number of fantasy books in recent years that stem from the mythology of the Djinn. There is almost an entire subgenre dedicated to the stories in The One Thousand And One Nights (a text that is a key part of the plot in A Master of Djinn). And there is good reason for that, there are many stories and lore to draw upon. And the creatures are magical beings that have become part of the cultural consciousness. Every fantasy fan has some passing knowledge of Djinn, Ifrit, Golems, and others from mythology.
The magical creatures themselves are of course incredibly surreal and fantastical. But they are also not dissimilar to humans. Their passions are extreme, sometimes turning obsessive and harmful. Their magic is powerful, able to change people’s perceptions of reality itself. And of course they are feared, but it is clear by the end of the book that the majority of them just want to live peacefully. They don’t want war, or to dominate the human race, or to use their fire to burn and destroy the cities they have helped build. They just want to live in a world free from slavery, and domination by others who only want to exploit their power. It is a powerful message to take to heart.
A New Wave of Fantasy Storytelling From Diverse Perspectives
Cover Art for A Dead Djinn In Cairo | Image via Tor/Forge
The resurgence of non-western folklore in fantasy is largely thanks to the talented new wave of writers of color working in genre fiction. Authors who are exploring their own stories and magic on the page. P. Djèlí Clark is a notable member of this movement. He has long been vocal about the importance of telling diverse stories. Giving perspectives that are different from what most people are reading. And he succeeds beautifully at this in A Master of Djinn. In seeing this world through Fatma’s eyes, we are given ample opportunity to empathize with her and understand her worldview.
As a reader, I understand Fatma’s frustration with white English saviors who are always trying to ‘civilize’ her people. Who treat her as an oddity and an exotic specimen when she shows up in a tailored suit, speaking perfect English. I can feel her distaste and unease about the referenced Americans who are so fearful of magic, and who condemn it as evil. That’s not at all out of character for America in this type of alternate history. Through these characters we can see a point of view that might be unfamiliar or uncomfortable for some readers. But it is so much a part of the world and people’s identities, that it is vital to see and understand.
A Master of Djinn Is The Most Fun I’ve Had With A Book For Awhile
Image via Orbit Books
It might sound like this is a heavy book, because of the deep philosophical themes that run throughout. But it was actually one of the most fun books that I’ve read in quite some time. There are some genuinely funny moments that occur throughout, and the banter between the characters is spectacular. The emotional moments are well-earned. And the tight pace consistently delivers action and surprises. Everybody in this book is endearing, from the smart and savvy women at the center to the ensemble cast of supporting characters.
This is an excellent beginning to a new series from P. Djèlí Clark. And I can’t wait to dive into the other stories like A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 to get to know these characters better. We definitely look forward to the next installment of this series by P. Djèlí Clark. And we highly recommend A Master of Djinn for fans of Black Sun, and Son of the Storm.
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.