This fascinating novel, by P. DjèlÍ Clark, took me on a journey that I did not foresee enjoying so much: a detective-style novel that intertwines current social issues with traditional sci-fi tropes.
P. Djèlí Clark is an American speculative fiction writer and historian. His historical fantasy Ring Shout won the British Fantasy, Locus and Nebula Awards in 2021. Clark’s A Master of Djinn, follows protagonist Fatma el-Sha’arawi, a member of the Ministry of Alchemy, as she attempts to solve the baffling supernatural murders being committed by Al-Jahiz – an anonymous figure known to fight oppression in wildly illegal ways.
I enjoyed the use of place as the setting itself, Cairo 1912, acted as a pivotal character within the novel, controlling key aspects of the story arc. The place, Cairo 1912, sheds light on a woman’s place in the workforce. The setting allows us to understand female power and authority in a male-led city. Clark uses place to present social injustices in a complex storyline and it works very well. I particularly loved the magical element of the prose, the mythical creatures, such as djinns, living and working alongside ordinary humans.
The themes expressed within the prose, such as the patriarchy, LGBT relationships and colourism, were particularly well explored. These three themes in particular were the most exciting to read, as Clark examined these effectively within his story. These themes were interwoven beautifully within a complex storyline, as Clark was able to speak about weighted social issues within a supernatural, detective-style murder mystery.
Clark confronts the patriarchy by showing how unfairly women are treated in the workplace, specifically within the fictional Ministry of Alchemy. We see the only two female investigators in the organisation, Fatma and Hadia, face immense pressure and scrutiny from their peers. The two women feel they have a responsibility to represent and fight for gender-equal professionalism in the workplace.
The LGBT representation within the novel was also extremely well handled. I was pleasantly surprised at Clark’s inclusion of a leading Gay Muslim character. I particularly appreciated how normalised Fatma’s sexuality is, in that the author never makes her sexuality the main focus of the novel. It is one aspect that shapes her character but does not define it. I found it a refreshing and realistic portrayal of Muslim sexuality, something we desperately need more of.
Clark also looks at colourism in the novel, through the favourited treatment given to the characters with fairer skin. Fairer skin is presented as more desirable and respected in an important scene, for instance, where a wealthy woman, Madame Nabila, prohibits the character Siti from entering her home. Nabila’s reason was driven by her bigoted judgement of Siti’s darker complexion, presuming her to be a servant and thief. The language used towards those with darker skin, reflects a shameful real-world history, something I hope works like this will help create awareness of.
I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys fantasy, as it has wide appeal. It is engaging, thought-provoking, and, most importantly, a story that transports a reader into a world full of mystery. The prose catches the reader’s attention from the get-go, immediately plunging them into the action. A must-read for all those who love a good mystery with the odd supernatural character mixed within the story.