SFF Librarian Reviews
As a voracious reader, and as someone for whom science fiction and fantasy are part of my daily job as a science fiction librarian, I come across a lot of wonderful work in these genres. I love bringing to the attention of interested readers books and authors that bring me joy, some of which may have slipped below people’s radar, and I do so most months in The SFF Librarian Reviews series for ARB.
Let’s explore strange new worlds together!
A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark. Tordotcom, May 2021.
One of the more colorful and fascinating fantasy universes brought into existence in the last few years has been P. Djèlí Clark’s fantastical steampunk early 20th-century Cairo, which he introduced in the 2016 novelette “A Dead Djinn in Cairo”. Decades before the events of the story, the Sudanese mystic and inventor al-Jahiz had torn the veil between our world and the realm of the djinn, causing magic to come flooding into our reality. As a result, Cairo and the entire world have been transformed through magical and technological alliances between humans and djinn. “Dead Djinn” was a wonderfully written mystery that gave us our first look at the brilliant Inspector Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, the department charged with investigating crimes and unusual events connected with the supernatural. After several short works (notably the 2019 Nebula-nominated novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015), Clark has brought back the redoubtable Fatma as the chief protagonist of the series’ first novel, A Master of Djinn (Tordotcom, 2021, $27.99). Djinn is another supernatural mystery, but simply to say that and leave it is to downplay the wit and creativity that Clark invests in his characters, plot, and entire world.
As the story opens, the leaders of a secret society devoted to the long-disappeared al-Jahiz are dramatically and fatally confronted by what appears to be the mystic himself—returned and determined to bring down a society he decries as oppressive and unequal. Fatma is called in to investigate; however, like with traditional mysteries, for me the actual solution to the riddle is less interesting than the relationships between detectives, suspects, and victims. It is here that Clark’s book really shines. Fatma is a strong, redoubtable woman—able to negotiate effectively and effortlessly with powerful djinn. Nontraditional in her dress and her attitude, Fatma has a passionate relationship with the mysterious, intriguing Siti. As a more senior cop, she gains an enthusiastic protégé, Hadia Abdel Hafez, and part of the police procedural-like fun of the novel is watching Agent Hadia grow into her job and Fatma develop a grudging and later personal and professional respect for her. Fatma’s interactions with her fellow inspectors are cordial, collegial, and are cliché-free of the usual “woman cop in a roomful of men” tropes. In fact, the world that al-Jahiz created has generally resulted in more safe and public spaces for women to advance, and Clark makes particular note of this with his strong female characters—Fatma, Siti, Hadia, Dr. Hoda (the Ministry’s chief of forensics), and others—that dominate the narrative. It’s a refreshing alternative to the long-held Western stereotype of the Muslim world as uniformly and irredeemably hostile to women.
Clark’s 1912 Cairo is a multicultural and multidimensional world, reflecting the true color of the Middle East as a region of rich cultural variety and not a monolithic grey bloc of oppression. That multiculturalism adds depth and flavor to Clark’s narrative, producing a beautiful magic all its own that easily rivals the literal magic that fuels the events of the book. Master of Djinn is a wonderful combination of genres: fantasy, steampunk SF, city chronicle, and crime procedural—together they fuse into a fun, intriguing adventure in a setting still unusual (though increasingly less so, thanks to writers like Clark, S.A. Chakraborty, G. Willow Wilson, and others) for fantasy. Personally, I hope for many more journeys to come, walking the streets of a magical Cairo with Fatma and Hadia.
Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M university, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020. No review copies were arranged by ARB.