‘Djinn’ a Magical Steampunk Tale

A while ago, I wrote about my love for P. Djeli Clark’s The Haunting of Tram Car 015 and how much I was looking forward to A Master of Djinn, the novel set in the same steampunk Egypt as the haunted tram car. There’s always danger in liking something, in looking forward to something. Things could not live up to expectations. The author’s larger vision might not match assumptions. But you can never tell until the moment of encountering that thing.

That moment has arrived. And you know what? I’m not disappointed.

A Master of Djinn is all about Fatma, an agent of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities known not only for her cunning and daring in solving cases for the agency, but also for the fact that she is the Ministry’s only female agent—or, at least was. She showed up for about two seconds in the very last of Tram Car as a star and famously solo agent, which is why the early addition of a partner in Djinn rocks her world. Hadia is the Ministry’s second female agent, and as much as Fatma chafes at having to play nice with another agent, the case before her is big enough she needs all the help she can get.

Because someone, or something, burned twenty-four people to a crisp with flame that scorched only flesh, not their clothes. And that same someone, or something, is claiming to be al-Jahiz, a legendary inventor and teacher returned from the dust of centuries past. But this incarnation of al-Jahiz also claims to be the master of djinn, and demonstrates that capability quite effectively with the djinn and ifrits in the city, as well as stokes the tinderbox of racism and classism plaguing the region. As Fatma and Hadia track down clues, aided by Fatma’s sometimes-bedfellow Siti (whom we also met in Tram Car), it becomes increasingly clear that al-Jahiz has motives far grander and more dangerous than anyone was expecting.

I love it when book covers seem like they’re just cool pictures but then could plausibly depict an actual scene from the story.

Like Tram CarA Master of Djinn is, above all else, fun. I know I’m not the only one who got a little over-steampunked, what was it, ten years ago or so? But the steampunk elements are more set dressing than shiny objects at front and center; Clark saves the spotlight for his characters and the magical and social elements of the world they inhabit. In so doing, he shows how well he understands that a character is not simply a person but a vessel of personality and experience and upbringing and surroundings and so much more swirled together.

This, however, is not to say I adored each character. Fatma was a little hard for me to love—not because she was one of those dreaded “unlikable characters” (she’s not unlikable at all), but because she felt a bit thin to me. The fullest-seeming part of her was her attention to her outfits, which Clark renders in loving detail: her masculine-styled suits, her ties, her bowler hats. (I suppose I am a sucker for characters who are passionate about what they wear.) There was nothing wrong with Fatma, just that she seemed like a character rather than a person, as did everyone around her. Though now that I write that out in so many words, it does seem like a pretty big ask for a book in which magical beings can and do burn dozens of people to a crisp in minutes.

Perhaps the most masterful turn Clark takes with Djinn is thematically. Some of Clark’s past work has dealt with themes of equality and equity, and those are present here, too. But so too are questions of subjugation and what “freedom” actually means. Magical beings are notorious for sticking with the letter, but perhaps not the nuance or implied meaning, of words, especially when dealing with the non-magical sort. It’s a trope we see in fantasy of all time periods and stripes, and the fae and djinn interpret things in the same, mischievous, often damaging way. But that sort of war of meaning between word and intent or practice comes up again—in the Ministry, reflected in society both Egyptian and English, among individual characters. Again and again we see how meaning can be deflated or contorted depending on who has the power to interpret it.

A Master of Djinn isn’t my new favorite book or anything, but I did thoroughly enjoy reading it. It’s listed as being “Dead Djinn Universe #1,” which I hope does mean there will be many sequels to come. I’ll happily delve back into Clark’s world for whatever mysteries await the Ministry and its agents next.

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