Sunday, June 19, 2022

Book Review: A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark

A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark is a Hugo novel finalist and has gathered a bit of attention lately. I've been curious about it and seeing it so broadly praised decided to give it a read. Here's the Goodreads blurb:

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....

Read on for my spoiler-free review.

Overall Impression

This is a unique book melding together steampunk and magic in a middle eastern setting. It was very interesting to see how this all tied together and shaped the story. The characters and plot are well done, but it is really the setting that makes this novel stand out.


I took several breaks while reading this novel, but overall was able to keep track of everything whenever I got back to it. The plot is straightforward- a murder mystery with lots of djinn magic involved. It interestingly starts with the murder itself so you see how it happens and then get to see the investigation work towards piecing together all the clues.


We primarily follow Fatma el-Sha'arawi, an agent of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. She is a quirky character- highly skilled, somewhat impatient, a bit of a tomboy with a penchant for suits and bowler hats, and a lesbian. She is joined with another agent, Hadia, and her girlfriend, Siti. While they're not always a trio, the times when all three are together is quite fun. There are also several other supporting characters, some of them djinn of various types, but it is these three that drive the plot.

Setting / World Building

The setting of this book was fantastic. Being set in 1912 Cairo is an intriguing setting in and of itself. This is also a bit of steampunk, with airships, clockwork machinations, and automatons working various jobs across the city. And as if that wasn't enough, there is also magic in the form of the djinn and other mythical entities that abound. I did feel that there was a lot that I was missing from not having read Clark's prior stories in this universe; in particular, I was curious to learn more about how exactly al-Jahiz released magic and djinn back into the world.

More directly, though, a lot of the setting revolves around an Islamic/Coptic mix and Arabian culture. There are plenty of references to the Mamlukes, the Abbasids, and other historical groups that were part of this region. There's also references to the old Egyptian pantheon, particularly Sekhmet and Sobek. Add to that plenty of references to Islamic faith, cultural attire, and even food references and you get a real, yet exotic, setting that is a pleasure to read. 

While the djinn were fascinating, with all their varieties and quirks, the angels were also quite interesting. They're not quite what I expected, being a mix of ethereal and mechanical constructs. They also allude to "others" making it seem as if there is a lot more creatures out there that are part of the universe. We do see mentions of goblins and faeries, but for some reason the angel's comments make it grander.

Final Thoughts

This was quite an enjoyable book and a fascinating world to explore. It has been a long time since I read any steampunk and this falls very much in that category. The Egyptian setting was excellent and makes me want to read even more in this universe. The only aspect of the story I didn't enjoy much was Fatma recalling some significant details of another case she solved. I kept wondering if I should have read some other story first or if this was just backstory, but it seemed quite detailed (I suspect this Clark's short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo). I don't think that was a pre-requisite to enjoying this novel, but it came up a few too many times so I wonder how much I might be missing.

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