“Decolonized” is a buzzword in publishing today. It refers to speculative fiction or alternate history which imagines a world where the European empires of the 14-to-early-1900s simply were not. They challenge past patterns in literature such as tokenism, or great white savior narratives (TV Tropes link warning – you will get lost, use with caution). Past examples reviewed in this space include Children of Blood and Bone and Jade City. For my money, some may be equally good, but there is no finer example of this movement than the subject of today’s review.
A Master of Djinn is a decolonized steampunk action-packed supernatural noir mystery. Let’s talk about it.
Title: A Master of Djinn
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Science Fiction, Mystery
Published: 2021, Tor.com
We dive into an alternate-history Cairo in 1912. In the previous century, the re-emergence of magic into Africa, the Middle East, and both East and South Asia, allow the colonized peoples of the world to break the yolk of their subjugation. In Egypt, the djinn live alongside humans. Their magic and knowledge have sparked a supernatural industrial revolution which launched the once-defeated nation to international prominence.
Fatma el-Sha’arawi, agent of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, doesn’t care about all that. Her life turns upside down when a prominent British diplomat is murdered through what could only be magical means in her jurisdiction. Along with her eager partner Hatia, her sorceress girlfriend Siti, and a host of eclectic magical informants, she must solve this mystery before it sparks an international incident, or worse: exposes her city to eldritch forces who would love nothing more than to conquer the ‘lesser,’ ‘mortal’ races.
As this is a true mystery, we cannot share much more than that without ruining the twists and turns sure to make you gasp.
Why This Book Is For You:
Byzantine deals with otherworldly beings, car chases, shoot-outs, duels, cultists, mages, and more populate this heart-pounding action-adventure from start to finish. At the same time, there is room for the mystery to breathe as each upturned stone reveals three more. It is a delicate balance between “AAAAAH!” and “aaaaaahhhh…?“, but Mr. Clark maintains it with skill and style.
A Master of Djinn is a witty, unexpected mystery. Clark takes the expectations of genre-savvy science fiction and mystery reader alike and turns them on their head. He holds up a mirror to your own expectations and says “see what you assumed? It is nothing like that. At all.” Surprising, yet inevitable. Perfection.
I would be remiss not to mention the quality character work in this book. I am probably missing a very minor character or two, but seemingly everyone, no matter how often they appear on the page, has a real character arc. That is no small feat with an ensemble cast. The characters are distinct, well-rounded, and engaging. You will love them, hate them, and ultimately remember them for years to come.
I loved this book. You should read it. 🙂
Where Can You Find More?
You can find more of P. Djèlí Clark’s work including the two prequel novellas in the Dead Djinn Universe at his web site. This novel won the 2021 Nebula Award for best novel, so be sure to check out that announcement if you’re curious.
Happy reading, folks.