A Dead Djinn In Cairo – by P. Djèlí Clark

Ever heard about the Dead Djinn Universe? I’m talking about the fictional world created by P. Djèlí Clark, combining steampunk and Middle Easter folklore. Its longest and perhaps most famous work is A Master Of Djinn – but you know me, and even if you don’t, I know myself… What I am trying to say is that, once the concept got my attention, I had to start from the very beginning. So here we go.

Title: A Dead Djinn In Cairo

Author: P. Djèlí Clark

Publisher: Tor.com

Publication Date: 18 May 2016

Genre: Fantasy Novelette

Stand Alone or Series: Standalone (part of the Dead Djinn Universe)

Synopsis: Cairo, 1912. Little more than fourty years have passed since the famed mystic and inventor al-Jahiz brought back magic into the known world, drastically changing the course of history as well as social dynamics as a result. Our main character, Fatma el-Sha’arawi, works as a Special Investigator for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities – the authority now charge of dealing with disturbances between the human and the supernatural world. The case that is now brought to her attention looks like a slightly odd suicide at first, but as she tried to shed some light on its circumstances, Fatma ends up facing a larger and stranger conspiracy.

Analysis: A Dead Djinn In Cairo is told in third person limited; while it follows Fatma’s point of view, it occasionally departs from her most plausible train of thought, to linger instead on information that, while common knowledge for the character, is very much precious for the reader – an almost inevitable chioice, given the necessity to build a fairly complex setting in a limited space. The language also contributed to the worldbuilding, since the author casually makes use of mythical terms, as well as of other untranslated Arabic words, that are however well contextualized so that the result is perfectily accessible to the reader.

The worldbuilding is, by all means, the main appeal of this story. While Fatma’s investigation is fairly catchy on its own (at least if you have a soft spot for secret cults and conspiracies like I do – but who doesn’t?), its main purpose is to take the reader on a tour through the city’s underbelly, meeting all sorts of otherwordly creatures and no less eccentric humankind. Thus, we get a sizeable glimpse of a really dazzling world, not just remarkable for its strictly supernatural aspect, but also for the many ways in which the existence of magic in this setting has changed human history – among other things, allowing Egypt to break free from foreign influences much earlier than in our real world, and dramatically speeding up all sorts of societal changes.

While you can’t expect any exceedingly deep characterization in a story this short, the main character is quite aptly sketched; her personality, career, and eccentric presentation (she ironically dresses like a British gentleman) are both emblematic of the rapidly evolving society of which she’s a prouct, and frowned upon by its most conservative component. Because indeed, no big transformation can come without struggle and friction.

Conclusions & Recommendations: A Dead Djinn In Cairo is a surprisingly rich, complex work, and a very enjoyable read. If you’re looking for less conventional fantasy setting, you should definitely add it to your reading list. The only critical note is that, despite its brilliant execution, such an articulate content can’t help but feel constrained in its short format – which is only an incentive to read all other works in the series.

Content Warning: Death – Violence – Suicide – Sexism

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