Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Title: A Master of Djinn
Series: Dead Djinn Universe #1
Let me start this review by saying I that enjoyed Clark’s short stories set in the Dead Djinn Universe quite a lot; A Dead Djinn in Cairo was snappy and entertaining, offering a refreshing mix of ideas, and The Angel of Khan el-Khalili is a solid psychological story rooted in real events, showcasing Clark’s strengths in the short form. A Master of Djinn, on the other hand…
Yup, there’s no way around it: if not for NG I would have DNF’ed this book without a second’s hesitation. It was jumbled, incoherent, predictable, and boring. There are many reasons why I judge this book so harshly. First is probably the case of expectations versus reality: I really liked the short stories set in this universe and expected the novel to be more of the same, or even better. It was not to be.
All the strengths of the short stories: sharp focus, snappy dialogue propelling the action forward, tantalizing glimpses of the wonders of the magic-steam-punk world imagined in detail by the author, flawed but feisty heroines, here simply disappeared in a dreadfully formulaic set of events broken by irrelevant snippets of alternate history. I will say that out loud: I don’t care about dying Ottoman Empire, beset on all sides by magically enhanced countries. I don’t care about German goblins or French fairies, or Russian rusalkas (btw, seriously? We’re matching them by the name? Then Egypt should certainly have none of djinn, being overwhelmed by a contingent of Brazilian encantados instead). The major plot points of this book, such as the peace summit, were either immaterial to the whole, or bungled so badly they seemed immaterial. Yes, I can reason out the importance of a peace summit in 1912, with all European parties increasingly more willing to spill some blood and reshuffle the cards on the table or even change the game altogether. But my understanding doesn’t come from A Master of Djinn at all – rather, from my knowledge of history.
Ultimately, it seems to me that A Master of Djinn simply doesn’t know what it wants to be: a commentary on slavery and colonialism, a discussion with the Western idea of the Orient, a murder mystery (well, this one’s easy – the twist was obvious almost from the beginning, so no mystery at all), an Urban Fantasy novel a la Kate Daniels (certainly, Kate Daniels vibe was so strong at the beginning that it actually put me off this book for a while), or maybe a shot at making further use of the bunch of loose ends and conclusions from the earlier short stories – here not so much repurposed as regurgitated. It’s a book that suffers from too many disparate ideas; it would make a few good short stories, but as one novel it just disappoints.
I think good murder mysteries need not only to be less predictable than this, but also need to have a solid psychological background: we need to be able to understand the motivations of the villain and to empathize with the protagonist and solve the case along them. For me, both elements were missing. To add to this injury, the key elements of the overarching plot were lifted from A Dead Djinn in Cairo. The main McGuffin, as well as the behind-the-scenes-villains, even the repetition of last-minute chases and fights were all taken from the short story and enlarged – and Clark was aware of this fact enough to include a comment about the main duo’s recurring outfits in a piece of dialogue. Well, here’s the brutal truth. “The same, but on a bigger scale” doesn’t work. It just doesn’t.
There’s also the problem of the main character being such a lousy investigator that the biggest miracle of the book seems to be her still having a job at the end of it. I know in 1920s the investigative methods were only starting to be developed, but seriously, Fatma’s totally hopeless. Fatma, our protagonist, is supposed to be a skilled detective, experienced and educated, a prodigy of the school and the Ministry she works for. In reality, she stumbles over evidence, is unable to form any coherent hypotheses, doesn’t notice obvious clues dangling in front of her, and then gets all hurtful over her own lack of perceptiveness. To give Clark his due, she’s still a very likeable character, in major part thanks to her flaws – she’s just not very smart.
Additionally, and tangentially, I noticed that the Chosen One trope is becoming a very tiring one for me. I still believe it can be done right – alas, not in this book. If the protagonist doesn’t need to fight with their burden, if they are not tempted, not required to make any sacrifices, then the Chosen One turns into the One Chosen-by-the-Author. And if this is the case, we can forget about any stakes at all. The emotional payoff evaporates in a puff of smoke, and we’re left with the authorial fiat.
Lastly, the character development. I needed a magnifying glass to see any trace of it. Agent Fatma doesn’t change at all, and she learns very little. She adjusts her behavior minutely when it comes to the treatment of her partner, Hadia, but the change of attitude is more visible on Hadia’s side. The same can be said about Fatma’s relationships with nearly everyone around her: others are required to adapt, while she stays the same. It feeds into the Chosen One trope mentioned above – mostly into how it doesn’t work in this book, though.
The worldbuilding remains wonderful, though. The intrusion of magic into the non-magical world is done convincingly here, showing the various ways in which the two worlds clash and fight, but also cooperate and create a form of synergy. I enjoyed reading about various elements of the Arabic and Egyptian mythologies, incarnated gods, djinn, and angels, who remain the most tantalizing mystery of Clark’s Dead Djinn Universe.
While I had a hard time reading and finishing this book (and boy, did I struggle: I started reading this in the first days of May, and it took me 3 weeks to finish it, which for me is like forever!) and consider it a weak book, I think other readers might be more forgiving. It’s P. Djèlí Clark’s first novel, and I can imagine that the transition from the short form to long can be difficult. It is fragmented, jumbled, and lack the punch of the short stories, but it also has cool ideas, an interesting cast of supporting characters, and a lot potential to build upon in the future. And he has great covers!
I have received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.