In Cairo in the 1870’s, an inventor and investigator of mysticism named al-Jahiz made a literal breakthrough unlike any other. He pierced the boundaries between our world and other worlds, allowing magic to bleed into ours. In the process, al-Jahiz was lost to another dimension before the rupture between worlds was sealed. For the intervening four decades the world has had to learn how to live with, or attempt to ignore, the magical beings that now populate our world.
The Egyptian government, as the locus of the magical in the world, set up the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. The ministry is charged with investigating disturbances of a paranormal nature and keeping the peace between magic users and non-magic users. The Ministry’s youngest agent is Fatma el-Sha’arawi. One of only a handful of female agents working for the Ministry, she is also one of the agencies most productive agents, who easily navigates the dangerous potentials ever-present in circumstances involving magic (which NEVER acts/reacts as one would think or hope).
Now someone, claiming to be al-Jahiz, is stirring up trouble across Cairo. He is a suspect in a magical mass murder and he seems to have powers that simply defy explanation by what is known of the magical world. Nothing about him, nor his actions, makes sense. This makes Agent Fatma the perfect person to investigate the case. While al-Jahiz, if that is who he really is, may threaten the existence of everything they know about magic, Agent Fatma has even larger issues on her mind: she has been assigned a partner!
In 2016, P. Djeli Clark introduced readers to his alternate Egypt and the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities on Tor.com in his short story “A Dead Djinn in Cairo." In 2019, he returned to Egypt and the Ministry to investigate The Haunting of Tram Car 015. Now Clark has given readers his first novel that is full of adventure of mystery, magic, romance, and danger. And it was well worth the wait!
A Master of Djinn is everything readers have come to hope for and expect from Clark: fascinating characters, snappy dialogue, and thrilling adventures all set in a gorgeously reimagined, magically infused Cairo of a century ago. This time, however, there is more. Expanding from the length restrictions of a short story or novella, Clark is able to spend a bit more time on everything, providing any reader who has read the earlier stories the one thing they wanted: more.
At the center of the story are his most engaging creations: Agent Fatma and Siti. Like a 21st century Hepburn and Tracy, Fatma and Siti banter, jockey for control, and, ultimately, succumb to the passion that both attracts them to each other and propels them through the mystery that they are facing, realizing, ultimately, that they are stronger together (and given who each young woman is, that is really saying something!).
Clark populates the novel with characters based on established tropes, but they are anything but typical. Wonderfully diverse, colorful, and eccentric, Clark’s characters play with expectations and continually surprises the reader with how they fit into the mosaic that is part of the plot. While the novel is set over a century ago, Clark is able to make thoughtful and pointed observations about race, class, gender, orientation, and imperialism that are every bit as relevant and timely as they would have been in 1912. Clark’s writing is sharp and his depiction of his Egypt, part ancient, part fantastic Djinn architecture, is gorgeous. His Cairo seems like a living, breathing place transitioning from opulence to slum in a matter of blocks, criss-crossed by cabled tram cars, winding streets and dark alleys that may be dangerous or may be hiding the best speakeasy in town.
A Master of Djinn is Clark’s first novel and will, hopefully, garner the attention he deserves. One can not help but hope that this is not the last time we will follow Agent Fatma on a case, but also wonder, given the range of his other works, where he will take readers next.
Read the interview with P. Djèlí Clark here.