I read and enjoyed The Black God’s Drums. This book, steampunk set in Cairo, sounds like everything I’d enjoy. I’d been hearing about this book since it first came out – so why did it take me so long to get to it??
A Master of Djinn
by P. Djèlí Clark.
Read by Suehyla El-Attar.
Macmillan Audio, 2021.
Listened to audiobook on Libby.
It’s 1912 in Cairo. Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities has just handled a case dealing with a very cranky, very powerful djinn who definitely should not have been woken up, when she’s assigned a new young partner, Hadiya, even though everyone should know by now that she works best alone. She’s still trying to get that sorted out when they’re called to a new case: 20 wealthy Englishmen, plus an Egyptian woman and man, have been found murdered at their club, dedicated to the legacy of the mystic Al-Jahiz. It’s clearly supernatural, and the man’s two adult children are anxious for justice. And immediately following that, someone calling themselves Al-Jahiz starts holding rallies all over the city, stirring up trouble. The two problems must be connected, and Fatma is determined to get to the bottom of. Meanwhile, her on-again, off-again lover, Siti, has appeared in her life once more – but can Fatma really trust her to stay in her life?
I skipped most of the setting in that plot introduction, but the world-building is fantastic. Cairo as depicted is a bustling metropolis, with people from all over the world, many different religions, and many supernatural beings – most especially djinn – mingling together. The integration of djinn into society 50 years earlier has led to a profusion of djinn-designed buildings and technology, such as the semi-sentient mechanical building shown on the cover of the book. The appearance of the (probably false) Al-Jahiz has led to a resurgence of opposition to followers of Egypt’s ancient gods, especially worrisome as Siti is a follower of Hathor.
Agents Fatma and Hadiya are both Muslim and feminist, though quite different in self-expression. Fatma prefers to wear custom-tailored English style suits and bowler hats, with the varying colorful outfits lovingly and delightfully described. Hadiya, on the other hand, dresses more traditionally, but with a variety of modern and cheerful hijab. Not, of course, that their clothes are the most important things about them, but they do serve to illustrate the variety of characters, within the same religion as well as having people from multiple backgrounds. Women’s voting rights and a peace conference are all part of the swirl of events happening in Cairo at the same time. Suehyla El-Attar does a wonderful job portraying all of these characters, including giving Hadiya a bit of an American accent when speaking English. (I wish her editor had caught her pronouncing “sow” meaning “to plant” to rhyme with “cow” instead of “toe,” but this is a small issue.) No wonder I saw it on best audiobook lists, as well as being a 2022 Hugo finalist!
I could go on for a very long time, as there is a lot to dig into here. I’ve since discovered that there are earlier novellas and a short story – I found A Dead Djinn in Cairo, I believe the first story, on Hoopla, and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 on Libby. A short story, “The Angel of Kahn el-Khalili” (where, alas, agent Fatma does not appear) is free to read on Tor.com.