- The Good: Rich fantasy world set in an alternate Cairo
- The Bad: Bloated action plot
- The Literary: Middle-eastern folklore abounds
In an alternate 1912, someone claiming to be the al-Jahiz, the man who opened the veil between the magical and mundane worlds half a century earlier, murders a brotherhood of his followers. This al-Jahiz condems the modern world for its social oppression, sowing unrest in the streets of Cairo. Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, takes the case.
I really enjoy the pre-WWI world-building of this Egypt, where Cairo rivals London in its modernity and djinn and maybe old Egyptian gods coexist with humans. There aren’t many urban fantasy novels out there combining Arabian Nights, steampunk clockwork angels and airships and automaton boilerplate eunuchs, and detective noir. The streets and nightclubs are vibrant and loud, and the in-depth descriptions of non-western clothing and food is immersive.
A Master of Djinn is actually the third story in this series, although the previous two, A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015, are short novellas, so I already know Fatma. She’s a likable character, with her smart European suits, sharp investigative skills, and an occasional willingness to apologize when she’s wrong. But the novellas aren’t necessary prerequisites if you’re ready to dive right into this story.
Besides the world-building, I love the two characters that Fatma comes to rely on, her girlfriend-with-a-secret Siri and her new eager partner Hadia.
Unfortunately, the shine of alternate Cairo doesn’t last in this longer story with a meandering plot and low stakes. I’m losing some faith in the protagonist: Fatma works for the Ministry of Magic, but the magic seems to be hidden until it is not, and it’s surprising that Fatma didn’t notice it all along. The magic lacks cohesion: new types of supernatural entities are introduced halfway through the story. A simple murder mystery turns into bloated save-the-world scenario complete with a mustache-twirling villain with a penchant for speeches.
Recommended as a fun and fast-paced fantasy thriller!