Book review: A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark

With his inventive worldbuilding and spectacular visuals, P. Djeli Clark has become a mainstay of the awards circuit in the recent years. His blend of alternative history, magic, urban fantasy and exotic locales resonates with me and many others, and his first novel-length work is no different. Taking place in a pre-World War I Egypt, the book is a wonderful throwback to pulp adventure paperbacks of the old, and to fantasy movies that have no right to be forgotten. Unfortunately, the novel also shares the same shortcomings: weak characters without agency and very predictable plot.

In the 19th century, the mystic al-Jahiz opened a portal between worlds and let magic enter our universe. With magic came mythical beings, in particular the Djinn, who have helped Egypt defeat an English invasion and elevated the country to superpower status. With their magic and skills, Djinn helped to create a modern society with growing gender equality and steam technology, far surpassing that of our real history.

It’s 1912, and al-Jahiz is long disappeared. Those who remember him are not only Egyptians, though. A group of Englishmen formed a secret mystical society, dedicated to collecting artifacts that al-Jahiz left behind. One of their periodic meetings, however, is interrupted by a mysterious figure claiming to be the fabled mystic himself. He promptly immolates the entire group and leaves.

Fatma, the book’s protagonist, is an agent with the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, and she is tasked with investigating the case. She is somewhat of a wild spirit who doesn’t like to follow the rules, so to reign her in the Ministry assigns her a strait-laced partner, Hadia. The trio is completed by Siti, a free-spirit woman with her own kind of magic and Fatma’s lover.

The three begin their investigation in the most mundane fashion, examining the financial accounts of the Worthington estate, whose owner was the head of the secret society. However, Siti soon comes with contacts from her own social circle, the adherents of old Egyptian gods. Through one of the priests, named Ahmad, they learn that the mysterious figure that was seen leaving the Worthington estate claims to be al-Jahiz and is holding rallies across the poorer sections of Cairo. The police confront him, twice, but each time they are defeated by his minions, and he escapes. He retaliates by attacking the Ministry and stealing the plans for creating a new gate between the universes.

Meantime, military tensions across Europe are growing, and the Egyptian king invites representatives from all countries to a summit in his palace. During the initial reception, al-Jahiz shows up, to sow discord between the attendees. Fatma and Siti confront him again, but he enchants Siti and orders her to attack Fatma. Fatma prevails, and for the first time manages to strike a blow against al-Jahiz, before he escapes. Thanks to this confrontation, Fatma and Hadia learn two important truths. First, they confirm that the mysterious figure is an impostor, equipped with exceptionally strong illusion magic. Second, they begin to suspect that the impostor is able to control Djinn, and through them he’s performing all his magic.

Further investigation, including the interrogation of a couple of Djinn that have been under the impostor’s spell, reveals an old magical conspiracy between the Djinn and the race of clockwork angels, and eventually leads to the suspect. When Fatma arrives with the police to arrest the suspect, an entirely predictable twist occurs, the real antagonist is revealed, and escapes on top of a giant mechanical Djinn. Even though pursued and attacked by Fatma and Siti, the antagonist manages to amass an army of Djinn and open the gate between universes. From there, the nine most powerful Djinn step through, are quickly subdued by the antagonist and tasked with leading the others of their kind in conquering the world. At the last moment, Fatma saves the day, and everyone lives happily ever after.

I’m a great fan or Clark’s worldbuilding. His focus is urban fantasy in an alternate history, and every time he is able to paint a wonderful yet weird picture. From the free city of New Orleans in The Black God’s Drums, through Lovecraftian monsters in early 20th century Georgia in Ring Shout, to Djinn and other magical creatures in this novel, Clark is superb at immersing the reader into a fantastic world. In this particular case, I felt like being in movies such as The Thief of Baghdad or The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. The visuals are combined with characters straight from a H. Rider Haggard story to form an engrossing world, which I’d be happy to see more of. Clark pays great attention to detail, describing the cities, buildings, various characters and food. At times, I did not understand some of the words, but the context made them fairly clear, and the foreign language just added a sense of exotic mystique.

Unfortunately, the excellent worldbuilding didn’t extend to character development. Fatma is ostensibly the protagonist, but in fact she is only a narrator through whose eyes the reader is watching the story. She is supposed to be tough and experienced, but that only extends to her fighting ability and cool head, with which she can talk her way out of a few tough spots. Other than that, she has very little agency. Clues are presented to her by others, she just happens to be on the right place at the right time (I suspect this is so that the author can present more worldbuilding without leaving Fatma’s point of view), and even in the final confrontation she fails. When Fatma is trying to move the plot, she completely fails and is further swept away by events.

Fatma has Hadja and Siti on her sides. Both are Mary Sue characters. Hadja is even younger than Fatma, in her early 20s, yet she is already an accomplished fighter, well-read, enjoying the mundane office work she has to perform, and she cultivates contacts with her “cousins” in all strata of the society. Siti is also a fierce fighter, wields unknown magic (which is revealed later in the book), and not being a member of the Ministry, she is free to perform more drastic actions. She shows up when she is most needed and performs all the heavy fighting. On top of that, she is a diva that can reinvent herself in any society, and always becomes the center of attention. The only reason neither of them solves the case on their own is that they suddenly become dumb enough for Fatma to get one step ahead of them.

The true hero of the story is Ahmad, one of only two characters in the book (the other being the antagonist) who has agency. He is the high priest of the old Egyptian crocodile god. Ahmad is portrayed as a caricature of a 1990s nerd with inflated ego, and he is constantly put down by the women around him. Maybe his mistreatment made Ahmad more sympathetic than he had the right to be, but he is also the one who delivers the clues that move the investigation along, and he is the one who defeats the antagonist.

The previous sentence was not a spoiler. Clark channels pulp novels from a century ago perhaps a little too well: his story is also incredibly predictable. The twist ending when the true villain is revealed is telegraphed a third of the book ahead, and only someone as blind as Fatma doesn’t see it. The outcome of the final confrontation, along with the manner by which the antagonist is defeated, is obvious from the moment the antagonist escapes arrest. The obviousness of the story contrasts with the few surprises, all of them associated with Clark’s more modern takes on issues like slavery, racism or pacifism. I very much appreciate the effort to write an authentic old-fashioned adventure fantasy, but the contrast between the old and the moderns is quite jarring.

As usual, I have been very impressed by Clark’s worldbuilding and his ability to paint settings in very vivid colors. I felt more like in a movie than reading a book. However, a novel-sized story requires stronger characters than what Clark was able to get away with in his previous works. The quality and treatment of the protagonists was disappointing. The story was also very predictable, which is a nice throwback to the spiritual predecessors of the novel, but a modern reader may expect a more surprising twists and conclusion. A Master of Djinn is an entertaining read, a throwback to a simpler era of magic and fantasy, but it mainly rides on nostalgia, and this benefit may last for only a short time.

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