A MASTER OF DJINN (Fatma el-sha’arawi #1)
Written by P. Djèlí Clark
Published by Tordotcom, May 11, 2021
My star rating – 5 stars!
Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.
So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.
Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city – or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems…
I don’t normally do this – posting my review so early. This book publishes in just over 3 weeks actually. But sometimes you run into a book that you love SO MUCH that you need to start talking about it immediately because you can’t contain your thoughts! This is that time.
First I need to mention something before I begin word vomitting about how much I love this book. There are two short stories that act as prequels to this. The first is A Dead Djinn in Cairo and the second is The Haunting of Tram Car 015. No, you don’t really need to read them before getting into this book. I’m sure that you’ll completely understand without the prior knowledge, but I do HIGHLY recommend reading those first! They introduce the characters and lay the plot to a few events that do in fact impact this novel. As I said, you’ll understand this novel just fine, but you may feel a little confused and like you’re missing out on an inside joke of sorts. They’re very short, and absolutely mind blowing, so do yourself a favour and read them!
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to this book!
Wow! This book was everything I hoped it would be and more! The setting in and of itself is so unique. We are in 1912 Cairo, but not the Cairo you would expect. Here we have djinn walking the streets as Egyptian citizens, and magic is everywhere. Sometimes you’re aware of it and other times not. The society found a way to co-exist with these djinn and even find a way to take advantage of what they have to offer, allowing to make their lives a little bit easier using their magic and technology. It had an old world feel with a mix of magic and steampunk. Yeah, I know. It sounds fantastic because it is!
We have Agent Fatma, working as one of the few women in the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. One night, after saving some poor men who mistakes one of the worlds most dangerous djinn as a genie in a bottle (never assume folks!), she is called to a mansion in Cairo where people are found burnt to a crisp but their clothing was unaffected. The case was large enough that the Ministry thought it the right time to assign her a partner, who is also a female, and one of the youngest recruits. Being the strong minded solitary woman that she is, this doesn’t go so smoothly. And neither does solving the case!
I’m not the biggest fan of murder mysteries and never have been. But this mystery was so complicated and layered that I loved every minute of it! We had the added complication of magical beings being responsible. We also had an INCREDIBLE layer of politics woven in which I loved! The “Imposter” who committed the crimes was claiming to be the returned person responsible for bringing djinn to the human world in the first place, and is now taking this opportunity to make political statements and changes. The combination of politics, magic, and mystery was so intense it felt like my brain never had time to rest! I was always working out motives and plot points, and constantly thought about the book even while not reading it.
Another aspect that I loved about this book is the theme of the power of women. Being that this is taking place in 1912, women were still very much behind the curve. In the prequel, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, there was talk of making it legal for women to vote in Egypt. Here we see that the law had passed. There’s also the fact that the protagonist is one of the few Agents within the ministry and one of the most celebrated forensic scientists within the ministry covered the fact that she was a woman due to the fact that she would be discredited. Like in real life today, women need to work that much harder and smarter to prove themselves within their field to be taken seriously. I deal with this on a daily basis being that my work field is mainly men, so I appreciate this more than I can express!
The magic and the djinn – there’s just so much to take in! Djinn are not all the same. You’ve got many different types, all of which have different abilities and demeanours. Some are peaceful and can do no harm. Some are more dangerous than they seem. Some look human while others look wildly different. Others are so terrifying they will haunt your nightmares (read The Haunting of Tram Car 015 if you really want to know!). It was so interesting to learn about all of them and what they are capable of.
Now here’s the kicker…….. you’re never going to believe this…… but one of my favourite parts about this book was the ROMANCE! What?! I know! I usually complain about romances in fantasy but THIS one was stand out! We have a female female romance that was already established when the book opens….. how often does that happen? It was so refreshing! We watch them interact with each other, talk about their past, their inside jokes, and their hang outs. But we learn early on that their relationship has always been unstable, almost shrouded in mystery and secrecy, but never really know why. As the story goes on we learn about what makes their relationship what it is and how they got to this point. Hands down the best part of this romance though was how realistic it was. It was never the focal point in the book. When you’re solving a crime and trying to stop the end of the world, who has time to focus on relationship issues?? This was more of a side quest of sorts, coming in and out of the story as the plot rode the waves. As Fatma had some downtime, she would revisit her love interest and it never took away from the story as a whole. It always added a bit of grounding through the drama of the mystery and it was just SO. WELL. DONE!
One thing I will say though – I figured out the “imposter/murderer” as soon as they were introduced. The author did a good job throwing me off a few times, but I still guessed it. But having guessed correctly, it never took away from the wow factor of the reveal. I could never figure out the motives and how it was actually accomplished so it didn’t feel like the ending was spoiled.
Also (yes, I’m still talking, sorry about that) this book had one of the most satisfying endings i’ve read in a long time! We got the “here’s your murderer and here’s why/how it happened” and then we got the “Oh you thought this was over? I haven’t even started yet! Here’s 40 more pages of shit hitting the fan to blow your mind. You’re welcome.” It wasn’t a long drawn out ending, but one that gave you more than you thought you wanted and you drank it all down. It was just so satisfying!
There. I’m done. That might be one of the longest reviews i’ve written. But, having now read three books/short stories by this author, I can say with 100% certainty that this is a new all time favourite author and I will literally read anything they write!
Until next time, happy reading!