Not being especially enamored with either steampunk or fantasy detectives, A Master of Djinn is a book that I wouldn’t have cracked without a pretty significant push. But enough people were excited about P. Djèlí Clark’s debut novel in his existing steampunk Cairo setting that it made the short list for the Hugo Award for Best Novel and won the Nebula, and I consider that to be quite the push.
A Master of Djinn—like the novelette “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” that introduced the setting–follows Fatma, a paranormal investigator working for the government of an alternate universe Egypt whose influx of magic has rocketed it to global prominence. This particular tale opens with the brutal murders of a group of Englishmen that had been searching for the secrets behind the appearance of magic in Egypt. It’s clear from the outset that this is no ordinary crime, which brings Fatma to the case, alongside a new and very much unwanted partner.
I’m not usually someone who reads for worldbuilding, but it’s hard to talk about A Master of Djinn without starting with the stunningly creative and well-realized setting. Clark nails the steampunk aesthetic and does a fantastic job imagining what Egypt might look like if suddenly populated with Djinn. There are still plenty of active Muslim sects, along with Coptic Christians, but there are also many who have walked away from monotheistic religions, as well as a resurgence of interest in ancient Egyptian worship. There are also the Djinn themselves finding a variety of ways to occupy themselves living in the mortal world, plus the American immigrants fleeing Jim Crow to provide a final flourish to a painstakingly researched alternate history Cairo that truly comes alive.
Unfortunately, despite a setting that provides a compelling hook, the story doesn’t have the power to stand out in the same way. The search for the murderer’s true identity isn’t really interesting enough to sustain an entire novel, and experienced genre readers will likely see the reveal coming a mile away. And if the murder mystery leads to a crisis that could spell the end of Cairene life as they know it, well, that’s hardly an unexpected turn at this point. Readers who enjoy mysteries with earth-shattering potential should have plenty of fun, but those who tire of repetitive action sequences with constantly escalating stakes will find more of the same. And regular readers of the blog will know that I belong to the latter category.
So if the worldbuilding can’t make a novel on its own, and the mystery isn’t anything special, the success of A Master of Djinn will fall on its characters. Fatma and her partner Haida provide an interesting odd couple dynamic, with the loner joined by a competent but overly enthusiastic rookie. But Fatma doesn’t have the depth to sustain a novel–she brings competence and style, but not much in the way of inner conflict. Her relationships with both her official partner and her love interest/often unofficial partner are reasonably entertaining, but they also aren’t enough to bring the story to another level.
Overall, A Master of Djinn offers up a murder mystery that ratchets up the stakes but leans into enough tropes that it isn’t especially hard to figure out. The characters and action are competent but not especially noteworthy. It’s the sort of story that would’ve been destined for the borderline between three and four stars if not for the absolutely remarkable setting, which is engaging and impressive enough to raise the entire novel in my estimation.
Recommended if you like: careful worldbuilding, steampunk, detective stories.
Can I use it for Bingo? This book is truly a treasure trove for the 2022 Bingo board, hitting hard mode for Book Club, African Setting, Urban Fantasy, Shapeshifters, and Author Uses Initials. It also has a BIPOC Author.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.