A Master of Djinn is an alternate history fantasy novel set in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark.
You might now be wondering what ‘alternate history fantasy’ means. Let’s have a look.
Alternate History Fantasy in Cairo?
Alright, let’s start with historical novels. Historical novels are about a specific period in history. Then, add a ‘what if’ question to make it alternate history. What if the Nazis had won World War 2 (The Man in the High Castle)? Or what if real superheroes helped win the Vietnam war?
If you add fantasy to the mix, then you get an alternate history fantasy novel. In the case of Master of Djinn, the question was: what if Djinn returned to the world and prevented the late nineteenth century colonization of Egypt by the British?
That’s right. In Master of Djinn, a man called Al-Jahiz opened a hole to ‘the Kaf’, which returned Djinn to the world. Egypt made a deal with the Djinn, who helped them trounce out the British. So, by 1912 Egypt has become a world power, and Cairo is filled with Djinn-built marvels to rival Paris or London. It features a flying tram system, marvelous new temples and libraries, and a whole host of supernatural citizens. Also, following the Djinn, angels have appeared, and the old Egyptian gods are stirring in their slumber beneath the sand.
Fatma el-Sha’arawi is an agent of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. The ministry is a kind of early-twentieth-century version of the Men in Black, or the Laundry. Difference is, they don’t operate in secret.
Fatma handles supernatural cases. She’s one of the few female agents, but also one of the best there is. She speaks British and loves to wear British suits.
Then, one night, a man in a golden mask murders an Al-Jahiz cult run by British nationals. Not just some random British nationals. No, the leader is the man who brokered the peace between the British and Egypt. Oh, and the murderer burned them all alive, without scorching their clothes.
So, the ministry sends Fatma to investigate, and saddles her with a new partner she does not want: a woman called Hadia. With the help of Hadia, and Fatma’s friend Siti, she tries to uncover the truth, but things quickly start spinning out of control.
It’s a detective story, with some fantasy twists, much like the Dresden Files and the Rivers of London, only set in pre-World-War-I Egypt. And that’s good. I love those series.
If I have one gripe, it’s that the story builds on two previous short stories Clark wrote: a Dead Djinn in Cairo and the Haunting of Tram Car 015. Neither is a mandatory read, but there are multiple references to those stories, and I always get FOMO if I haven’t read them. So, I bought and read both short stories somewhere at the quarter mark of the book. More my own problem than a reflection on the work, actually.
Fatma has several of the tropes detectives have in cop shows. She’s a loner, level-headed, and good in a fight. However, she’s also a woman in 1918, and well, that’s adds depth to her. Because being a woman loner cop is hard. She’s an outlier for her time.
Fatma is also surrounded by friends and colleagues. Siti is a mysterious woman who serves the temples of an old Egyptian God. She’s the foil character for Fatma. Where Fatma is controlled, planning, and often doesn’t know what’s going on, Siti just does stuff, seemingly uncontrolled, and always knows what’s going on.
Hadia is the eager sidekick, who turns out to be less green than she initially appears.
A Master of Djinn uses quite some tropes, but somehow it keeps them fresh. In short, it’s not that original, but it is very entertaining.
I liked A Master of Djinn. A lot. It’s a fun book, an easy read, and has a lot of non-standard fantasy stuff. At the very least I haven’t read any other stories in alternate history fantasy versions of Egypt before this.
So, go read this. Unless you hate fantasy, then don’t.