After a bit of a break, I’m getting back to the current book pick for the Sword & Laser Book Club – this time getting into the alternate history urban fantasy novel A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark.
A Master of Djinn is set in an alternative history Egypt where, in the late 1800s, a sorcerer known only as Al-Jahiz, working in Cairo, restored magic to the world, and with it Djinni, and all manner of other supernatural beings. In this process, this also brought Egypt into being a Great Power on the global stage (technically again), and lead to an earlier contraction of several empires.
It’s now 1912, and rumblings of various political and military disagreements are pointing towards a potential World War. A peace summit is due to be held in Cairo in the hopes of avoiding that ar, organized by diplomat Sir Alastair Worthington – a British man who is well respected in both Europe and Egypt, and who has adopted Egypt as his home country. Worthington has also founded a secret society dedicated to Al-Jahiz and his works, as part of his, for lack of a better term, Egyptophilia.
So, when a person claiming to be the returned Al-Jahiz murders Worthington and the entirety of his brotherhood, using magical means, not long before the peace summit. the Egyptian government has A Problem on its hands. So, the relevant organization – the Ministry for Alchemy, Enchantment, and Supernatural Entities Agent Fatima el-Sha’arawi to investigate, along with her new (and rookie) partner, Agent Hadia.
Clark uses some of the narrative concepts of the “Buddy Cop” (or just “Buddy Crime”) story for considerable effect, through using twists on a familiar narrative structure to help keep the reader grounded, and also preventing a sense of exoticization. By having the characters react to things that are different from our life experiences as normal through a familiar concept, those things become normal, and we as readers are able to step away from our internal sense of exoticization and just roll with it.
As an example, Fatima starts the story as an agent who works on their own – who doesn’t have or want a partner – and eschews traditional Islamic fashion, instead wearing Western-style suits with a bowler hat. She also doesn’t talk much about her religious beliefs, particularly since she’s also a lesbian. Her partner, Agent Hadia, being fresh out of the academy, has less street smarts, but has some book smarts Fatima lacks (particularly when it comes to religious training) – but also can pull her own weight in a fight and, being a member of the Islamic Feminist League, is in tune with various social movements, meaning that it reduces a degree of tension regarding whether the two are going to end up at odds because of Fatima’s sexual identity.
The involvement of the peace summit also really helps to round out the larger world of the setting, both with the various foreign dignitaries, and with the handful of emigre communities that pop up over the course of A Master of Djinn, either directly playing a role in the plot, or as background supporting cast. If I had a gripe at all with this, it’s that the Conference’s Great Powers are “The European Great Powers + Egypt” – with no presence of any of the contracted former colonies of the Great Powers that might have their own tensions that would make the World War fit that description – such as India, China, and Japan. Japan’s conflict with Russia in World War I ended up spreading into further grabs for territory in China and Korea, for example, and the rise of magic could potentially have lead to some degree of a resurgent China (giving it a different global perception than it had pre-WWII), and the Indian Independence movement might have already made a level of headway that it didn’t get until post World War II. It all feels like a missed opportunity.
On the other hand, Grey gets into the very ways racial prejudices have and haven’t changed in this world – the White European members of Worthington’s “Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz” look down on the people of Egypt, Cairo has a population of African-American emigres (particularly demonstrated by the African-American Jazz musicians at the club where Fatima hangs out), much as there were in France. However, darker-skinned Egyptians also face prejudice from their peers, and related to this, the story also gets into the historical president of this with tensions between previous Egyptian pharaohs and the darker-skinned population of Nubia to the south, and the ways that the Nubian population was treated in Egypt in the past.
Now, the mystery that is the heart of the plot is wonderfully well written – feeling like a work that fits in the lineage of other detective stories set in and around World War 1, not as cynical as noir, and not as grim as hard-boiled detective stories, but still with a willingness to get its hands dirty in the telling of the story, without getting into the gentility of a cozy.
I’m tremendously glad I read this book, and I’m going to need to hunt down the other novellas in this universe – and I deeply look forward to Clark’s next novel.
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