Cairo, 1912. Agent Fatma of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities pursues the hand behind a massacre of a secret brotherhood. At the center of the murdered brotherhood is Lord Alistair Worthington, a prominent Briton living in Egypt who once arranged a treaty between the two nations. His death signals the supposed return of al-Jahiz, who ushered magic and alchemy into the nineteenth century by eroding the barrier between realms. Saddled with a new partner, the starry-eyed and determined Hadia, and aided by her lover Siti, Fatma is tasked with tracking down the imposter posing as al-Jahiz, solving the murders, and maintaining peace among Cairo’s citizens—not to mention preventing the imposter’s dominance over the djinn and their powers. No big deal.
Set in a world in which magic has recently returned, A Master of Djinn is not so much genre-bending as it is a novel which expertly threads noir, steampunk fantasy, alternate history, and mystery into a cohesive indictment of imperialism. Working for the Ministry, which seeks to “create balance between the mystical and the mundane,” Fatma confronts all sorts, among them djinn, angels (or beings claiming to be), and ghuls. A Master of Djinn is the first novel in Clark’s Dead Djinn universe, following two short stories and a novella, The Haunting of Tram Car 015. Though Clark previously introduced Fatma, Siti, and the Ministry in these previous works, for those who haven’t already delved into his alternate historical fiction, Master is a suitable starting point; it works both as a standalone and an embellishment of the universe’s other stories.
The Dead Djinn universe’s success lies, in part, through Clark’s decision to present a world in which magic is new; before al-Jahiz’s alchemy, magic was a thing of the past, of folklore, and of myth. Fatma’s work at the Ministry entails not only crime-solving, but, more broadly, making sense of a world containing both humans and djinn. Much of the pleasure of reading a full-length novel in the Dead Djinn universe lies in the time Clark takes to wind through Cairo’s bustling streets, its savory restaurants, and the homes of djinns and agents alike. Early twentieth-century culture amalgamates with stylish steampunk technology to present an immersive alternate history that one can almost imagine was real. While humanity and magic have intertwined in Egyptian society by the time we meet Fatma in 1912, the investigator hasn’t, however, mastered magic’s complexities herself: often shrouded in riddles or duplicitous through literalism, magic in A Master of Djinn “abhorred imbalance. And always exacted a price.” Clark develops magic largely out of a tradition of Arabic folklore and literature, incorporating real figures like al-Jahiz and the Seal of Solomon, the latter a signet ring said to hold immense powers. As with the sprawling city, we navigate magic’s intricacies along with Fatma, who lends a guiding hand. Though the return of magic is certainly not a new conceit in speculative fiction, its marriage with Clark’s examination of imperialism and international vying-for-power elevates the trope.
A Master of Djinn is as much anti-imperialist as it is a delightful genre rollercoaster. Clark achieves a remarkable deftness in his work’s social commentary. He is gratifyingly blunt in his criticism—from the beginning, Clark frames the settler mindset as haughty and hubristic, always about to give “another half-baked tirade.” Like last year’s terrific novella Ring Shout, which sets a group of Black rebels against the supernaturally demonic forces of the KKK during Jim Crow, A Master of Djinn examines the world in which it inhabits. Set at the cusp of the British Empire’s collapse and World War I, Egypt flourishes: not only has magic threaded itself in the fabric of society, but women have the right to vote and a deluge of art, invention, and architecture bolsters the nation. With the help of djinn and other magical beings, Egypt has asserted itself against Britain’s slackening control. The nation is not alone in its rebellion; magic loosens the West’s imperial stranglehold as far as India, where djinn and “even older magic that was said to flow with the Ganges” drives British forces out of all but a few cities. European powers gather to discuss “the menace of magic,” which has left only Germany with equal footing in magic and industry. The imposter’s arrival in the advancing metropolis thus portends a fight between powers and, it is implied, the onset of the First World War that Fatma must ultimately prevent.
Beyond the inclusion of magical beings, however, Clark’s depiction of Egypt in 1912 is thoroughly entrenched in history. Clark’s historical knowledge grounds A Master of Djinn, tempering its steampunk sensibilities into a widely digestible novel, no matter readers’ genre preferences. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Britain considered Egypt the genius loci of Orientalism; for the British, who collapsed all Eastern cultures into an uncivilized but seductive past tinged with the occult, Egypt was an obsession. By the turn of the twentieth century, novels like Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897) illustrated Egypt as a land of mystical powers, decadent sultans, and loose sexual morals—the antithesis of Britain’s scientific reason and virtue. This “Egyptomania’s” refusal to conceive of a modern Egypt is not lost on us in our own time: Look no further than the continuing popularity of The Mummy (1999), or the many exhibitions of stolen artifacts paraded throughout Western museums—or, indeed, the troves of pulp fiction to which A Master of Djinn is an unlikely successor.
As Fatma notes, Westerners seldom read from Eastern scholars and instead proffer “bad translations and wrongheaded takes.” The Worthingtons’ opulent estate is likewise decorated with “salacious” Orientalist paintings of “barely clothed alabaster women … waited upon by dark-skinned servants.” Even for those like the Worthingtons who live in Cairo, their racist fantasy of Egypt overrides its reality. Often, settler violence is palpable in the novel; other times, Clark pokes fun at Westerners with comedy, demonstrating its mundanity: at the scene of the massacre, police inspector Aasim Sharif comments, “Some kind of cult maybe? You know how Occidentals like playing dress-up and pretending they’re ancient mystics. Order of the this … Brotherhood of the that ’ ” Whether it is with solemnity or levity, Clark presents a nation at the forefront of international concerns and a changing political landscape. When the largely European members of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz (itself almost certainly a jab at the real Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn) are murdered, these tensions swell. Though they are further complicated by notions of progress, however, A Master of Djinn resists their simplification.
Though Orientalism paints nations like Egypt as backwards and irrationally superstitious, the novel is set in an Egypt that “boast[s] of its modernity.” Exploring their own motivations and desires, its characters live within the “age of wonders” and are people for whom modernity is a double-edged sword. For all the aggrandizement of progress, Egypt has also absorbed some of its occupiers’ faults—as one character remarks, “‘The world moves swift in its boasted modernity, forgetting those it leaves behind, or grinds beneath the gearwheels of progress.’” Even magic is not enough to assuage its damage; in Clark’s teeming Cairo, American expats flee Jim Crow and anti-magic edicts. A Master of Djinn skillfully deconstructs the traditional juxtaposition between the rational West and the barbaric East as not only a racist contention, but further considers how imperialism harms communities in the name of modernity.
Magic’s co-option by settlers in Egypt—who at once deride Arabic culture and appropriate it—is a further example of imperial history that Clark weaves into his fantastical narrative. One character laments that the failure to “embrace this new age has left Britain faltering, while the darker races rise” and suggests that stealing is as good as creation—“But why create when we can simply take?” Like invention and progress, magic means different things to those who wield it; under Western powers, it is either a threat to be eradicated or yet another tool of imperialism. But magic cannot be so contained; it demands a price. And in Clark’s imaginative universe, it is ultimately a tool of rebellion.
It is Fatma’s navigation of her relationship with Siti that is at the novel’s heart, however. Sexy, tender, and never dull, their tug and pull keeps the reader transfixed throughout. Fatma is jaded and quick-witted and dandyish—a refreshing portrayal of the noir investigator while retaining some of the character type’s most familiar traits—and Siti is her femme fatale, though perhaps equipped with more motorbikes and silver-clawed gloves than is common for that other noir archetype. Clark knits their romance into the novel’s plot and its character arcs, at once giving it sufficient attention on its own while never rendering it extraneous.
Clark moreover takes notable care to present characters of varying faiths and choices: Hadia is a member of the Egyptian Feminist School and rebukes assumptions that she is a “sheltered hijabi” who is “concerned with etiquette and propriety”; Siti is a Nubian woman and worshiper of a lion-headed goddess who encounters colorism and is always prepared for an action-filled fight, equipped to the teeth with gadgets; and Fatma, our heroine, has a seemingly endless line of finely tailored suits topped with a stylish bowler and is always well-dressed even when her life is in shambles. The women in A Master of Djinn—even Abigail Worthington, daughter of the murdered Lord, whose seemingly good intentions reek of white feminism—are defined, nuanced, and complex. While Clark’s novel introduces a vast cast of unique characters, his central women shine most dazzlingly. It is their story he tells.
A Master of Djinn is smart, then, but it’s also enormously fun. Bolstered by a compelling mystery and romance, Clark’s web of genres compliment one another through the fight sequences, crime scene details, and exquisite worldbuilding. It’s an adventure that grapples with a history of imperialism, on the ground and in art, and proves that novels with anticolonial bite can be just as entertaining as the pulp noirs of the past.