A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Thanks to NetGalley for the free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Luckily, I get to rave about what makes this book so great.
Master of Djinn is more than just an extremely fun adventure-romance (in the literary and popular sense)-murder mystery. (There’s also clockwork/steampunk elements, because Clark saw us all coming and threw as many things into this blender as possible.) It puts colonialism and racism, the patriarchy, disenfranchisement, and slavery under a microscope, all while infusing it with humor, sarcasm, and memes. (Clark reminds us that the 21st century didn’t invent that shit, bless him.)
I love Clark’s re-imagining of a Cairo – of an Egypt – independent of British rule, establishing itself as a world player in a critical moment in time. The unmasking of the conspiracy at the tangled heart of the story mirrors the real history of Otto von Bismarck and the complex web of secret deals he brokered amongst world powers that led to the outbreak of World War One. I don’t know how Clark managed to do that so elegantly while including those same world powers on the precipice of their conflict in the story. That’s what makes this book so powerfully good: the use of bombastic adventure tropes to distract you from the reality that you’re reading some sophisticated and subtle storytelling. Layers of misdirection, for the characters and the readers!
Let’s talk about the characters. Fatma is complicated and willful and deeply good. She makes mistakes and does better next time, and does it with style and panache. Siti is funny and sexy and has sharp edges and claws and always shows up when someone she cares about needs her. Hadia is ambitious and smart and skillful and sly. They are all devoted to family in their own way. It shouldn’t be so rare to find a book written by a man with female characters who feel like they were written by a woman, but it is, making this book a rarity twice over.
I highly recommend reading at least “A Dead Djinn in Cairo“, if not also The Haunting of Tram Car 015 , before reading this novel.
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A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I re-read “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” both to prepare for reading Clark’s new novella set in the same world, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, and because I heard Clark speak about “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” during a panel appearance at Readercon in 2018, and I realized how much I had missed, and how little credit my previous review gave the depth of the story.
After I first read this, I was caught up in the wonderfully quick pace, the witty banter of the characters, the satisfaction of the climactic fight scene, and I called this story a confection. I often compare writing to desserts, because I love both, but that review does “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” a disservice.
This novelette has more markers and symbols of colonization and the anxiety of modernity than a James Joyce story. Lush with details that are so excellently woven into the fabric of the narrative, I didn’t notice them until Clark said the story is about colonization, and I read it again. Egypt has a very long history as colonizer and colonized, which Clark pays careful attention to throughout. In this alternate history, not only is technology developed at an earlier time to give it steampunk elements, the Egyptians stave off British colonialism and impose their own colonization on neighboring Sudan. And in turn, they are all colonized by creatures of legend emerging again into the world—djinn, angels, ghuls, gods, and monsters. None of the political colonizing is described in the text—I learned of the fight between Egypt and Britain to colonize Sudan when I started looking up the history of colonialism in Egypt—and yet it is, through every minutiae of cosmopolitan Cairo in the early 20th century, and the characters we meet as they move through their re-imagined cityscape investigating the mysterious death of the titular djinn.
I recently read Clark’s novella The Black God’s Drums, which does for New Orleans what he does here for Cairo—sketch out a whole different history in a few words, a few pages; food, clothes, and the people consuming them; city streets and the people inhabiting the corners. I immediately slide into his reimagined places as though they have always been this way. I won’t overlook the complexity again.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Although I have never read the Russian tale “Vassilissa the Beautiful,” I enjoyed the story Porter told in Vassa in the Night. I wanted to read this novel because I love fix-it stories, where the protagonist finds something broken or gone terribly wrong and must correct it. The empowerment journey those characters take appeals to me, time and time again. Throw in some urban fantasy and I’m excited to pick up your book!
There were a few moments in the first half of this novel where I considered putting the book down and marking it as “did not finish,” but Porter always managed to bring me back with an interesting character or one of Vassa’s wry self-observations. I wasn’t sold on Erg at first (she seemed more of a mechanic than a character), but by the end I was definitely in an “I’m not crying, you’re crying” situation. Even more than Vassa’s sassy self-awareness, what kept me going was how violent the story is, not for the sake of the gore, but for what it represents. This novel has real teeth. Beneath the feisty and sarcastic narrator is a darkness that Vassa feels helpless against, and that she must contend with to reach her goal. This book did not feel safe, and that uncertainty kept me turning the pages.
I’ve read a number of interpretations of Baba Yaga, set in different periods of time, and this was the most violent and irredeemable. Baba Yaga is not a cranky old woman who is painted as a monster by the patriarchy because she is powerful (although I have read good interpretations taking that stance). She is not a misunderstood protagonist, or an agent of revenge against bad people. She is not to be rescued by the end. She is the villain and is unapologetically brutal in a society that prefers to think it is less dangerous and more civilized than it used to be. Porter deftly employs the physical violence of the story not only to explore the brutality of modern society against people of color, but also to prepare Vassa to face the violence of her own emotions. Vassa’s feelings are as repressed and disassociated as a lot of people’s willingness to believe that the world is like navigating a BY’s: you are vulnerable to the capriciousness and ill will of people in positions of power who may hurt you with impunity. And like modern society, Vassa must learn to carry the burden of her feelings and embrace them in order to set the captive free and set the world to rights. I’m glad I took this journey with her.