A Master Of Djinn – by P. Djèlí Clark

If you follow this blog, the Dead Djinn Universe needs no introduction at this point. After talking about the shorter works set in its world, we now get to its longest and most famous piece, that is to say A Master Of Djinn. I was really excited to go back once again to P. Djèlí Clark’s enchanted Cairo, and even more so to see a more extensive exploration of its themes.

Title: A Master Of Djinn

Author: P. Djèlí Clark

Publisher: Tor.com

Publication Date: 11 May 2021

Genre: Fantasy – Alternate History – Steampunk

Pages: 396

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

Synopsis: Fatma el-Sha’arawi, recently acclaimed for her world-saving endeavours – that we as readers know from A Dead Djinn In Cairo – is now tasked with yet another delicate investigation; this time the mystery concerns the death of some English gentlemen, all belonging to a secret brotherhood devoted to the figure of al-Jahiz – the Sudanese mystic and inventor who brought magic back into the world. Meanwhile, a masked agitator is instigating unrest in the streets of Cairo, claiming to be no less that al-Jahiz himself. Together with her new assistant Hadia and her lover Siti, Fatma must unravel the mystery, digging in the secrets of the world’s history and dealing with supernatural threats as well as with human ambitions.

Analysis: Written in third person limited, the novel mostly follows Fatma’s point of view, except for the first chapter, where we see the English cultists from their own perspective as they face their inevitable demise. This way, we are made close witnesses to the events while preserving the mystery that surrounds them, and later follow the main character as she gradually unveils the truth. Once again, P. Djèlí Clark makes good use of his writing style, naturally blending local words in a prose that manages to be both evocative and approachable.

The novel deals with the themes and ambitions of the previous works to bring to their full and well deserved development. Now more than ever the lore of the setting is essential to the plot; not only magical powers and creatures play a crucial lore in the story, but figuring out the mystery requires Fatma to investigate in the history of her world as well. Moreover, fantasy elements are once again intertwined with and social themes; Fatma, as a queer woman with prestigious career, has an especially meaningful perspective on the evolution of a society still divided between prodigious progress and old beliefs; wealth inequality also play a role, and while the mysterious man claiming to be al-Jahiz is revealed as an impostor and not concerned at all with the struggle of the common folks , it is a matter of fact that societal progress has left too many people behind. The ending also brings us back to the theme of colonialism, since the fake al-Jahiz is revealed as an English woman trying to seize and exploit local tradition to restore her Country’s lost power.

The book also gives us some more fleshed out character study of its protagonist: if Fatma had been memorable enough since her first appearance in A Dead Djinn In Cairo, here we find a more complex portrait of her personality, as well as of her relationships with other people; despite being an undoubtedly positive and heroic character, we get to see her flaws and limits as well: from her lone wolf attitude, exposed ad actually detrimental to her job and no sign of coolness at all; to her initial prejudices towards other faiths – despite the fact her girlfriend is herself a fervent idolator. The way she deals with her assistant Hadia – a hard-working and capable young agent who still wears traditional garments – is especially interesting, as it shines some light on the pitfalls of some self-proclaimed feminists that, while striving for their own freedom and their goals, may actually lack sympathy for other women, especially for those they perceive as more traditionally feminine. Throughout the novel, however, Fatma has the chance to grow as a person and learn from her mistakes, which is essential both for her personal life and the success of her mission. It’s also worth comparing Fatma’s flawed but redeemable attitude to the characterization of Abigail, the final villain of the story. In many ways the two may seem similar, as they are both fiercely independend and determined to stand up for themselves; but while Fatma is able to see past her personal interest, Abigail is adamant in her will to only empower herself, actually siding with the most reactionary forces of society and readily sacrificing those she sees as inferior to her personal success.

Conclusions & Recommendations: A Master Of Djinn stands out as the most accomplished and satisfying piece of a series I already loved from the very beginning; where other works were full of brilliant and promising ideas, here we see these ideas finally shine in their fullest. Recommended if you have enjoyed any of the other stories, or even as a first read if you are intrigued by its concepts.

Content Warning: Death – Violence – Fire injury – Sexism – Racism – Slavery

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