Taking the night airship to Cairo
With a recent boost from the sf Worldcon selecting our August book (A Psalm for the Wild-Built) as the Best Novella for 2022, the Beamers met with hopeful expectations for our September book, A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark, bringing us another award-winner. Alas, it was not to be, but the reading experience we had was sufficient itself to make us feel as though we had found a winner and an author on whom we will keep our ready reading eyes.
Dead djinns, dark chasers
P. Djeli (or Phenderson Djeli) Clark first published a novellette set in his alternate djinn-filled Cairo (“A Dead Djinn in Cairo”) in 2016, and has continued his fantasy series with short stories (“The Angel of Khan el-Khalili”) and novellas (“The Haunting of Tram Car 015”), before publishing his first novel, A Master of Djinn. He has also published dark fantasies set in the southern US (The Black God’s Drums, Ring Shout). His work received awards from both writers (Nebulas) and fans (Locus magazine). The perspectives of his work are taken from the narratives of enslaved people, Caribbean voudon, and African history. His pen-name includes the term “djeli”, a West African title for story-tellers, sometimes called “griot” in French. A Master of Djinn is the fourth work in his Dead Djinn universe, bringing back his first protagonist, Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi, to face a possible djinn rebellion led by a figure claiming to be the long-missing sage who first broke open the portal to the djinn realm.
For the Beamers, though, this work was the first time we had encountered Agent Fatma of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantment, and Supernatural Entities, saddled with a new (and unwanted) partner, Agent Hadia, as well as struggling with the flightiness of her lover, Siti, a “heretic” who worships the old Egyptian gods, in particular Hathor in her warrior aspect as Sekhmet. There is a bit of backstory that flows through the novel, too, as Fatma will mention previous cases and battles with supernatural entities. Fran was fortunate to have a copy of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” as part of her e-book edition, while the rest of us are settling for a visit to Tor.com to find the original tale. I liked the references to the early troubles, even without reading the story, as it added to the depth of the current work, giving it a history and having the characters react to current events in light of past dealings, something that episodic stories (like television) often skip.
Three heads are better than one
The dynamics of the relationships among the three main characters (Fatma, Hadia, Siti) was the strongest feature of the book for us. Chris noted that he was impressed by their supportive interactions even in light of the friction that develops as “loner” Fatma is forced to accept a partner, who in turn is upset that her contributions and talents are being overlooked by a fellow female agent, who should know better than her sexist male colleagues that a woman is as (or more!) capable. Fran, too, enjoyed the book for offering three strong female characters, all of whom provide real contributions and who are unafraid to stand up for themselves, even if the tone of their remarks on colonialism, racism, or sexism can be a touch strident.
The setting itself also stands out, as well. Nick had a bit of difficulty with the frequent use of Egyptian terms for clothing or food or architecture (no glossary??), but he agreed with me that the text did bring the setting to life, giving us a good sense of immersion in the Cairo of 1912. Not everyone found themselves well-situated, though. Alan was a bit off-put by the prevalence of djinn and the lack of effect on the technology or economy or even politics. With all their magic, why do the djinn not rule? There must be some effect (no telephones?), but it escaped our attempts to pin it down. There is a glimpse at how other nations and cultures are dealing with supernatural entities (the Kaiser has a goblin ambassador perched on his shoulder), but very little understanding of how humans and magical beings are really able to relate on individual levels (why does an illusion djinn lose so much at the racetrack?)
Coming together in a rush
Some of the answers were given at the climax of the book, which was the weakest part for us, unfortunately. Nick felt that the ending was a bit rushed, with so much happening, like a battle of djinns, that it overshadowed the basic story and our main characters. While the fight among the djinn did illuminate the ways that they had changed since being freed to walk the mortal realm (“Are you another spouter of this phil-o-sophy?” “No, I’m a sculptor.” “She’s very good. She makes beautiful landscapes of rocks and sand!”), it did tend to sideline our protagonists. Plus, the mystery of the impostor sage was fairly evident to those of us who are long-time crime fiction readers. Still, part of the pleasure of reading mysteries lies in beating the detective to the solution. And our heroes prevailed, and the epilogue gave us all a nice look at how they were renewing their bonds (and a nice laugh at Fatma’s gift from the crocodilian high priest of Sobek, unable to enjoy his cigarettes due to his developing snout).
With its swift action and well-written fight scenes, A Master of Djinn had the ability to sweep us past any small quibbles about the wider world or the unlikelihood of the first, obvious suspect being the actual guilty party. So, with gusto, we returned the favor and awarded it ‘7’s and more ‘8’s (with Chris giving the tie-breaker). And thanks to Alan’s google-fu, we all have the link to the first story, “A Dead Djinn in Cairo”, on Tor.com, so the mystery of who/what the angels are can be explored further by the ever-curious Beamers. And knowing the Beamers, there will be a different explanation from each one who reads the story.