P. Djèlí Clark is one of those authors that’s on my ‘to watch’ list. You might even say I’m a fan. I’ve read through most of his short stories and purchased most of his novellas, something I don’t do for just anyone these days. I was anticipating A Master of Djinn and when it appeared on Netgalley, I jumped at the chance to request it. Imagine my delight when I was approved; it was like Christmas in January. So now I find myself in a quandary because of that most troublesome phenomenon, hope-experience mismatch.
Set in the same world as The Haunting of Tram Car 015, it follows Agent Fatma as she’s on a big case–that of the British aristocrat and a number of his guests being viciously murdered. In the eternal style of the buddy-flick, she’s also assigned a new partner, the enthusiastic rookie Hadia. Hadia was one of the joys of this story, and if she’s a bit of a Mary-Sue, it’s a relief, because the story is badly in need of competent protagonists.
Inventive worlds are one of Clark’s hallmarks, and it’s fun to see alternate-Egypt fleshed out. The investigation goes from the Ministry building to Fatma’s apartment building, to an underground nightclub, to various unique locations in the city, and I enjoyed getting more feel for the locations, and some of the characters in each.
Plot, however, was problematic. While it initially seems to be a murder investigation, it turns out that a much larger game is afoot that ultimately (thematic spoiler)(view spoiler). At times, however, the story felt scattershot, too many asides that pulled focus away from plot. Halfway through, world politics were awkwardly inserted–perhaps as a way to up the tension–and it turns out now there’s also goblins to contend with. Unfortunately, I ended up with more questions, having accepted the premise of the adjacent-world for the djinn. The short explanation didn’t square for me, but perhaps someone else will read it differently. “Folktales were collected and scoured for any practical use. Djinn were not native to the country, but there were other creatures–chief among them goblins… allowing [redacted] to rapidly grow in its magical and industrial expertise.”
You see, to me this introduced the idea that magic was more common and integrated into societies than just the djinn. So why isn’t Fatma better at noticing it? Investigating it? There’s a character who is an acolyte to one of the old Egyptian gods, and every time Fatma runs into him, she’s struck by that person’s odd appearance, as if they are changing into that god. Yet what does she think when she sees them near final transformation? “A man who thought he was an ancient god and was now disfiguring himself.” Really? I don’t understand–we have a world with djinn and goblins and our main character works for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, and she thinks someone is disfiguring themselves over an actual magical transformation? In a world where there are legitimate pocket universes run by djinn?
Later, someone confesses a secret that she should have noticed, and she thinks, “what kind of investigator was this unaware of what was going on right in front of her eyes.”I absolutely agreed; she’s actually quite unobservant on multiple occasions, which ends up causing strife in different ways. I realized reading this story that I was coming to the conclusion that Fatma is not competent. The question is, does Clark realize it? Is she a character who we should laugh at for her obsession with her clothes over her job? My intuition is that is not his intention, and it’s substitution for plot development (spoiler: she literally has people she interviews telling her where to go next).
Also awkward was the frequent use of non-English words. I’m no stranger to sci-fi and am more than used to figuring context of a word, but at times it was excessive, to the point of inhibiting story meaning and flow. One particularly cumbersome example:
“They wore full-length black kaftans with red tarbooshes. Seated on the modish moss-green divan, were three women, each dressed in a black sebleh and wrapped in a milaya lef. Their faces were hidden behind matching bur’a, though their heads were strangely uncovered. ‘Agent Fatma,’ one called in a familiar voice.”
To make it worse, my kindle wasn’t having it, but probably that’s because of the arc. /Eyeroll
I can’t help but contrast this with the focus and meaning in Clark’s novella and short stories, and I’m left thinking that Clark is just better in shorter form. This has too many side bits that don’t feel integrated. It’s definitely not a murder-mystery as much as a thriller fantasy. Add a lead character that I found myself withdrawing from and it ended up being something less enjoyable than expected. To remind myself of how good Clark is, I went back and found one of his shorts I had missed> I discovered a tight little horrific tale, ‘Night Doctors.’ Damnit! That’s what makes this so hard.
Ultimately, it’s better than most of what you will find out there. But it doesn’t live up to his reputation.
Many, many thanks to Netgalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge for the advanced review copy.