Book Review : A Master of Djinn

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : A Master of DjinnA Master of Djinn (Fatma el-Sha’arawi, #3) by P. Djèlí Clark
Published by Tordotcom on May 11th 2021
Pages: 400
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Source: NetGalley

Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns to his popular alternate Cairo universe for his fantasy novel debut, A Master of Djinn
Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.
So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.
Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city - or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems....

A Master of Djinn is the first work of fiction I have read by author P. Djèlí Clark and the third entry in his Fatma el-Sha’arawi series. I had no idea that I was reading the series out of order, but it didn’t put me at too much of a disadvantage. However, I definitely wished that I had read the previous entries for further clarification. What initially drew my attention to this novel and intrigued me the most was the setting, which is in an alternate steampunk Cairo, in 1912. In this universe, magic is a very real thing, and djinns abound in Cairo. Main protagonist, Fatma is an agent of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, which investigates magical and supernatural crimes. A Master of Djinn is interesting, witty, and full of representation, but I found that the parts of the novel that fascinated me the most were not the focus of the story.


“But she was a Ministry agent. That meant protecting people from the world of the supernatural and the magical–even when they ran stupidly headlong into it.”


We first meet Agent Fatma as she is called to investigate a mysterious mass murder in a well-known society member’s house. There, he and the members of his secret brotherhood, which was dedicated to finding antiquities of Al-Jahiz, were gruesomely burned to death by a masked man. I was immediately intrigued by these murders. However, Agent Fatma soon realizes there is much more going on than a simple murder mystery and before she knows it, the entire world is at stake. I was kind of dismayed that the A Master of Djinn went in this other “saving the world” route, especially when this referenced the previous entries in the series that I hadn’t read, as I really was quite interested in the murder mystery aspect. I found myself losing interest as the novel moved away from the murder mystery, and threw in world politics, goblins, and other magical creatures, such as steampunk “angels.”


“The arrival of djinn and magic pouring back into the world had impacted people’s faiths in strange ways. It was inevitable a few would go seeking Egypt’s oldest religions, whose memory was etched into the very landscape.”


I was also extremely interested in another aspect of the novel, which concerned the worship of old Egyptian gods. These “idolators” as A Master of Djinn calls those that worship the old gods instead of Allah, are able to harness the power of the gods, which grants them unique abilities. One idolator in the novel is even turning into a crocodile himself in the midst of his worship. I found this entire concept really interesting and I really wish the novel would have spent more time on it. I also really enjoyed the relationship between the idolators and Muslims, who looked down on idolators. I found it even more interesting that Agent Fatma was dating an ardent idolator, but seemed to disparage her faith, despite seeing firsthand the abilities it granted her girlfriend.


This judgmental attitude was the main reason I didn’t really like Agent Fatma as a character very much. She is supposed to be one of the best Agents in the Ministry, and is notorious for having a bit of a lone wolf attitude. Despite working for a Ministry that involves magic, alchemy, and all sorts of other forces, Fatma is extremely close minded. So it’s really no surprise that she really wasn’t nice to her new partner, Hadia. Fatma immediately writes the young and eager woman off, thinking her incapable of being her partner, and making excuses left and right to bench the woman. I found Fatma’s attitude really annoying, especially as she is a self-proclaimed feminist who has met with plenty of her own judgement not only as a working woman, but also as a female Ministry agent in Western suits.


“A few months back, women had even been granted suffrage. There was talk of entering political office. But the presence of women in public life still unnerved her many. Someone like her boggled the senses completely.”


As Fatma and Hadia are the only female agents, why couldn’t Fatma be encouraging and supportive to her fellow woman trying to make it in a man’s world? She judges Hadia on every level, from her headscarf and appearance down to the fact that she enjoys doing paperwork, immediately deeming her a sheltered and privileged young woman incapable of being of any help to her or her investigation. But it doesn’t take long at all for Hadia to prove her worth, something she shouldn’t have had to do, constantly saving Fatma from physical violence and providing excellent insight and backup to the investigation.


“Fatma grunted. This is what notoriety got you.”


I definitely didn’t find Fatma’s behavior and attitude to be professional, so I was hoping she would at least be a genius investigator to merit the massive chip on her shoulder about taking a partner. But I didn’t find her to be that spectacular of an investigator at all, as she constantly misses the obvious, has her plans blow up in her face (even starting a massive riot in one instance), and altogether just doesn’t seem to have that much on the ball. In fact, she relies on her idolator girlfriend, Siti, and her new partner, Hadia, a lot more than she thinks. Watching her “lead” this investigation is like watching someone take all the credit for a group project when they actually contributed very little.


Despite my dislike of Fatma, I really loved the world-building of the novel. The steampunk environment of Cairo was really cool. I loved the descriptions of the beings that called themselves angels, and the idea that worshipping an old god could grant someone powers or transform them completely. The descriptions of the world, especially its clothing, felt really authentic as well. In fact, one might even say they were a bit too authentic, as I was constantly googling terms. There was no appendix or glossary of terms in the novel, so it was a bit of a drag not only constantly having to look up these innumerable terms, but also then finding out that they had really no importance other than as passing descriptions of dress. And boy, does author Clark love to describe clothing. I myself am not a big fan of these descriptions, and I got very tired of reading about Fatma’s suits and bowler hats every day, and those didn’t even have non-English terms I had to look up.


“Hopping a street trolley she found it packed with commuters–factory women in telltale light blue dresses and hijabs; businessmen in suits of Turkish fit and red tarbooshes; government clerks wearing kaftans over crisp white buttoned-up gallabiyahs, complete with shirt collars in the ministerial fashion.”


Even though I felt over encumbered by the frequency of these mostly trivial-to-the-overall-plot-terms, I was glad they were there, for representation purposes. It is so rare to read a novel with Middle Eastern characters, dress, and worship as the main focus. It is a joy to see, but I still wish there had been a glossary. And there is even more representation to be had in the way of LGBTQ+, as the main character Fatma has her own headstrong girlfriend, who I can’t help but feel is entirely out of Fatma’s condescending league, but I digress.


I think fans who enjoyed author Clark’s other series will probably really enjoy this novel, but as someone entirely new to the series, I found it disappointing. I simply couldn’t like Fatma, and lost interest in the story as it moved away from the murder mystery (which honestly wasn’t even that much of a case to solve), and turned into a race to save the world from an evil magical conqueror. To me, that type of story has been done many times before, and I wish A Master of Djinn had stuck more day-to-day magical investigations in steampunk, magical Cairo, while providing representation and witty commentary, for that is what it did best.

Book Review : A Master of Djinn - Blogging with Dragons

Posted February 16, 2021 in Book Reviews, Fantasy


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