A Literary Study of ‘A Master of Djinn’ by P. Djeli Clark

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing.

I enjoyed this story a good deal. The author is clearly very talented. This book was a combo of steampunk, Middle Eastern/Egyptian Alternate History Fantasy, and social commentary fantasy. It reminded me of ‘City of Brass,’ The Parasol Protectorate books and a little bit of Jemisin’s Dreamblood books.

THIS IS A MYSTERY NOVEL. I WILL BE SPOILING THE MYSTERY TO DISCUSS THE PLOT. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

Note: I listened to the audiobook, so I expect my spelling for some of the names is wrong.


BIASES STATED

To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.

I am a fan of this book’s genres. I’m well-read in similar books. As a result of my familiarity with this book’s influences (at least I’m assuming they’re influences), I am well position to explain what this book does right and wrong compared to the genre as a whole… but I’m also pre-disposed to enjoy this perhaps more than an unbiased reader. So take this review with a grain of salt.

Additionally, this is a mystery novel. I’m a fan of mystery novels… but compared to a lot of mysteries, this one wasn’t the best. The mystery works, but this is no Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple or Peter Whimsey.


READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR

I found this book pleasant to read. The author’s fun worldbuilding continuously surprised me. Reading this made me happy. However I occasionally got bored by some protracted sections of too-slow pacing and mediocre action. THIS IS NOT A FIGHTING BOOK. If you read this book, go in expecting the book to be about characters and a slowly unfolding mystery. What combat there was, while occasionally entertaining, isn’t as spectacular as what I’ve grown to expect from the genre.

The mystery surprised me. The clues were all there pointing to the real villain, and I noticed a few of them before the actual climax. However, I was nonetheless surprised with the final twist villain. I’ve got mixed feelings about the mystery.

  • On one hand I’m happy that the author successfully pulled a fast one on me- while playing fair. The clues were there, I just didn’t put it together.
  • On the other hand, I felt that the plot needed one or two more false leads and red herrings to really be a good mystery. In short, the book had one very obvious red herring suspect, so obvious I immediately dismissed him. However, the author didn’t introduce any new suspects besides the red herring. The mystery felt a bit half-baked as a result. This book needed more suspects, more clues and the like.

Some books are ‘serious business’ while other books are ‘light and fun.’ (For examples, Grimdark books are ‘serious business,’ while Sword and Sorcery books are ‘light and fun.) This book was in between these two poles, but closer to the ‘light and fun’ end of the spectrum. I had more emotional energy after reading this than I had before. This was a good, pleasant book which inspired joy and excitement.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (B+)


CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

The concept was ‘A mysterious figure claiming to be a semi-mythical historical figure has returned to Egypt in the early 1900’s, and now seeks to overthrow the government for the sake of the common folk. He wields great and terrible magics in his quest to overthrow the government, killing and enslaving all who oppose him. The protagonists must catch him before he gains the tools he needs to enslave the whole world.’

  • I felt this was a very good concept. The one part of it I did NOT like was the whole ‘world domination’ aspect. That was too cliche for me.

The execution of this concept was good, but not great. It was bogged down by too slow pacing in parts, minimal tension and obscured stakes. I did enjoy the worldbuilding; the whole ‘alternate history but with clockwork angels, djinn and magic’ really worked.

Overall, I give the story’s Concept and Execution a rating of: (C+)


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

I found all of the characters to be enjoyable- some good, others great. None were disappointments.

The protagonist Fatma has entered my top 50 list of favorite protagonists of all time. She’s a dapper public servant of the Egyptian government, who works for the Department of Weird Magical Stuff. You’ll never see her outside of a Western-style suit and a bowler cap, no matter how hot Cairo gets. She lives her life on the line between recklessness and service. It was easy to root for her, even though she had a bit of an edge to her.

Now that said, Fatma as a character could have used some further R&D. Personality wise, I enjoyed her protective instincts for her new partner, even though she barely hides her disdain for working with other people. However, she needed more of that disdain to really shine through. A good hero is someone who’s fatal flaw comes to bite them in the ass; Fatma’s fatal flaws never had lasting consequences.

Fatma’s colleagues in the Ministry and the police were all fun and memorable characters, even though all of them similarly lacked fatal flaws to really make them stand above the pack.

I enjoyed Siti as a character. I liked her twist. I think she was my favorite character in the book. I’m not talking about it because I don’t want to spoil it.

SPOILERS BELOW!

The antagonist Abby was good… but I wanted more of her. We only understood her true motivations at the very, very end of the book, and by then it was too late.

  • Basically, for 90% of the book Abigail was pretending to be al-Jahiz, a semi-mythical Egyptian historical figure. Abigail (pretending to be al-Jahiz) rallied the Egyptian poor against the Egyptian monarchy and state, claiming that as the monarchy was corrupt and deserved to be overthrown. This is a sweet motivation.
  • Then for the final 10% of the book, Abigail was antagonist in her own right. She reveals that her motive to cause chaos in Egypt is to destabilize the state so the British Government can lead an invasion and re-take the lost Egyptian colony. This is also a sweet motivation.
  • Here’s my problem: these two motives are both awesome, however they don’t mix. You can’t square the circle of a popular revolt against a corrupt government with a foreign invasion by the British. Abby (disguised as al-Jahiz) was literally running a campaign of civil unrest against the Egyptian government, based on the claim that the Egyptian government wanted to kowtow to the British. If Abby’s ultimate goal was to make Egypt once again kowtow to the British, her campaign of civil unrest was a very stupid thing to do.
  • See, the villain ball trope.
  • Further, the whole ‘rallying the poor to overthrow the government’ plotline just vanishes at about the 2/3’s mark of the book, to be replaced with an international peace conference which never quite went everywhere. I got whiplash with how fast the novel changed directions.
  • That said, Abby had fun dialog, especially in the audiobook version.

Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (A-)


PACING AND STRUCTURE

STRUCTURE

I will be examining this book using the 5 act format.

  1. The Status Quo
    1. The book’s status quo is established in chapter 2 of the book, with Fatma going out on a case to investigate a djinni trapped in a bottle. This clearly establishes Fatma as a dapper, competent public servant devoted to the X-Files department of 1912 Egyptian government.
  2. Challenge to the Status Quo
    1. The challenge to the status quo is in chapters 1 and 3. We see the Brotherhood of al-Jahiz assassinated by someone dressed up as ‘al-Jahiz’ (really Abby).
    2. Fatma goes to investigate the crime, and interviews Abby (now dressed up as Abby) and other potential witnesses. Abby lies to the police. Even as I read this chapter I realized she was lying, but credit to the author I forgot about her lie until the end of the book. So Abby’s twist villainy was foreshadowed all the way back in chapter 3.
  3. The Turning Point/ The Road of Trials
    1. Chapters 4 through 16. Fatma goes through a series of try-fail cycles, trying to gather information from potential witnesses.
    2. She visits Siti’s family to learn about some of the dead victims.
    3. She visits a jazz club.
    4. She visits a library to get info on al-Jahiz.
    5. She confronts al-Jahiz(Abby), there’s a brief fight, and Abby escapes.
    6. Fatma and Hadya visit Abby(not disguised) again, try to get more info. More lies.
    7. They visit a djinn black market relic smuggler to discover the source of al-Jahiz relics.
    8. al-Jahiz explodes a bomb in the Ministry, ending the act
    9. al-Jahiz stole a secret portal device from the basement of the x-files ministry, which can be used to open portals to anywhere… such as the infernal prison of dangerous djinn.
  4. Escalation of the Challenge
    1. The peace summit takes place for… reasons? I don’t know why this international summit is important. Even after reading the book, it seems disconnected to the plot as a whole.(*)
    2. al-Jahiz attacks the peace summit to stir up trouble. There’s a fight. (*)
    3. al-Jahiz mind controls Siti into attacking Fatma. Fatma barely stops Siti in time. Fatma attacks al-Jahiz, and cuts off a lock of hair.(*)
    4. Fatma and Siti reconnect. Good character work with these two.
    5. Fatma and Hadya go speak with a bookseller, and learn of the Seal of Solomon.
    6. Fatma and Hadya go speak with the Council of Angels, get backstory on the Seal of Solomon.
    7. Fatma and Hadya go speak with the angry djinn sealed in a bottle from chapter 1, about the Seal of Solomon.
    8. Fatma speaks with Siwa the smuggler again. Learn the riddle of the ‘lion.’
  5. Climax and Conclusion
    1. The police+Ministry go to confront Abby and her brother. At first all evidence points to her brother Alex being al-Jahiz, but Fatma figures out the riddle just in time that it’s Abby who’s al-Jahiz. She uses the lock of hair to prove that Abbey is the villain.
    2. Abby puts on the Seal of Solomon, and goes on the attack. She smashes the peace summit in Mecha-Djinn-Kaiju mode, but is defeated by Sobek, the god of the Nile. (It makes sense in context.)
    3. Abby succeeds in summoning 9 uber-powerful fire djinn from god knows where using the portal device.
    4. There’s a random-ass Kaiju fire djinn fight which goes on for too long, and is entirely pointless to the book’s characters and themes.
    5. Fatma uses the Seal of Solomon to make the fire Kaiju go away.
    6. Brief denoumont. Fatma, Hadya and Siti have a ‘let’s go get shawarma’ scene at the end of the book.

Using this structure formula, I think I can spot some flaws in this book’s structure. Namely, the whole peace-summit battle at the beginning of act 4 seems random and tangential to the plot as a total. 3 major things happen as a consequence of that fight: it’s revealed that Siti is half-djinn, it’s revealed that al-Jahiz has the Seal of Solomon and Fatma gets a lock of Abby’s hair. Those three things could have happened at the fight at the end of Act 3, when al-Jahiz attacks the ministry.

In my opinion, it’s good storytelling to keep your story as short as possible. I feel that (the Siti reveal) and (the lock of hair) and (the Seal of Solomon reveal) should have been moved to the end of Act 3, during the attack on the ministry. The chapters which take place in the peace summit could have been entirely deleted. I marked them with a (*). This would have made Act 4 all about the Seal of Solomon, which would make Act 4 feel a lot faster paced because we were getting answers nonstop. Instead Act 4 felt ramble-y and slow.

On a similar note, I felt that the random-ass Kaiju fight against the 9 fire djinn wasn’t needed. Abby was enough of an antagonist with the Seal of Solomon. Having another boss fight after the first boss fight just padded the wordcount. It could have been removed.

PACING

This book was a touch slow paced. Ordinarily, mystery novels are fast paced, pulling the reader through the book by the desire for answers to questions. I’ll discuss this more in the next section, but I’ll summarize it here when I say that I felt that the stakes and tension of this book didn’t meet my expectations as a reader.

Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (C+)


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

I liked the book’s mystery plot, for all it’s flaws.

  • The reveal of Abby was good- I just wish the author thought to include more red herrings of possible alternate suspects in the beginning of the book.
    • As is, the book only has one obvious suspect: Alex. (In truth Abby was using Alex as a dupe.)
    • Because Alex was so obvious, my investment in the mystery overall suffered. I like challenging mysteries. My enjoyment in the narrative suffered.
    • If there were more suspects, my enjoyment of the narrative would have increased.
  • I liked the whole Sobek/Nepthsys plot arc. Ahmed was a hoot of a character. It’s climax felt deserved, and earned by the author. Well done to the author.
  • I liked the twist reveal of Siti being a djinn. I didn’t expect it, but in retrospect it made perfect sense. This is the best type of twist.
  • I was a bit indifferent to the ‘Machine of Worlds’ twist. It felt unearned. I’m given to understand that the ‘Machine of Worlds’ was an important plot point in a prior novella… a novella which I haven’t read. As a consequence of me not reading it, the introduction of the portal device ‘Machine’ wasn’t emotionally captivating for me.

STAKES

The book’s stakes… had issues. I had a similar problem recently when I read ‘Gideon the Ninth.’ Namely, the antagonist’s motivations were obscured until the very end of the book. Because we-the-reader was in the dark as to why the antagonist was doing what they were doing, we never got a good idea of what the endgame of the book was going to be. The antagonist’s motivations serve as storytelling foreshadowing; because Abby’s goals were in the dark for so much of the book, the reader was also in the dark. That’s bad.

This problem with the stakes could have been easily solved. Here’s what I would have done:

  • I would have two antagonists.
  • First, al-Jahiz (Abby in disguise) had returned and he was trying to overthrow the government, maybe claiming he had a birthright to the throne and not claiming that Egypt was trying to sell itself to the British.
  • Second, a shadowy International Actor (Abby in disguise) was trying to destroy the Peace Accords in order to cause an international war, so that Egypt could be colonized again.
  • The protagonists would be chasing both antagonists… only to realize that both were Abby all along!
  • At the Climax, al-Jahiz (Abby) uses the Seal of Solomon to take the throne of Egypt. She invites the British army into Egypt to stabilize her rule… and also re-establish the British colony. This would neatly link the two antagonists together.

Because we have two separate antagonists operating on two separate paradigms, we could get a clearer sense of their motives. We would understand that al- Jahiz wanted to take over Egypt with popular support, and we would understand that shadowy International Actor wanted to take over Egypt for the colony. In this case, stakes would be clear: fail to defeat al-Jihaz, and the monarchy/bureaucracy would be overthrown; fail to defeat the International Actor, and Egypt would be colonized.

TENSION

Tension is the anticipation of negative changes in the plot. I had trouble with tension as a result of the stakes being so obscured.

  • After al-Jihaz (Abby) killed the Brotherhood, I never got a sense of what she would do next. Would Jihaz kill again? Or would he return to the Sudan and take a nap? Threat, or no threat?
  • After al-Jihaz preached to the masses early on, I didn’t understand why he did that. Threat or no threat?
  • After al-Jihaz stole the Machine of Worlds, I didn’t understand why he did that. Threat or no threat?

I got definitive answers to these questions at the end of the book, by that point it was too late. In short, this book had so many open-ended questions that I was left guessing what would happen next (guessing in a bad way). In that doubt, I defaulted to a state of low-tension.

Until al-Jahiz bombed the ministry, the book didn’t feel very tense. The bombing of the ministry brought the threat home. But even after the bombing, I had no clue why he stole the Machine of Worlds. It only became clear at the 4/5’s point that al-Jahiz intended to summon the 9 Lords. The threat of summoning the 9 Lords spiked the tension… by which point, 4/5’s of the book had been relatively low tension, which is bad. If we learned early (for example, in chapter 1) that the 9 Lords were going to be summoned, that would have made a more tense story overall.

Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (B-)


AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

I enjoyed this book’s tone and prose. This book was a beautiful, mildly irreverent take on turn-of-the-last-century Egypt, starring a protagonist who loves her modernizing Cairo, because it lets her stand out and be grandiose, and do a job she loves. Cairo felt alive. There were some grungy hookah bars and opulent Djinn dens. I could smell the cardamom tea, taste the sasparilla, eat the food at Siti’s family restaurant, hear the Marxist Sufi muezzin issue the call to prayer. Around every corner was a clockwork angel, or new-fangled magic gizmo, or a sleezy djinn who wants to sell you off-brand apparel.

The theme was good, at moments great, but it never quite paid off. The theme was ‘racism and discrimination.’ It was invoked repeatedly: first with djinn vs human bigotry; light skinned Egyptians vs dark skinned Abyssinians; New Orleans jazz musicians who escape Jim Crow to come to Egypt. It was even invoked indirectly, through the discrimination traditional Egyptian Religion worshippers (people who worship Ra, Horus, Sobek, Hathor…) face from Muslims and Copts.

At the climax, it’s revealed that Abby wants to conquer Egypt in the name of Britannia, a Britannia which time and again treats local Egyptians with disrespect if not outright racism. She wields a ring which subjugates and enslaves people, the perfect weapon of colonialism. And then…

And then…

And then there’s a random-ass Kaiju fight against 9 fire demons.

???

The theme worked well, up until the moment the 9 Lords showed up. It’s a small nitpick, but I had to say it.

I give the Authorial Voice: (A)


SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY

I just explained above why I liked this setting. To repeat myself…

This book was a beautiful, mildly irreverent take on turn-of-the-last-century Egypt, starring a protagonist who loves her modernizing Cairo, because it lets her stand out and be grandiose, and do a job she loves. Cairo felt alive. There were some grungy hookah bars and opulent Djinn dens. I could smell the cardamom tea, taste the sasparilla, eat the food at Siti’s family restaurant, hear the Marxist Sufi muezzin issue the call to prayer. Around every corner was a clockwork angel, or new-fangled magic gizmo, or a sleezy djinni who wants to sell you off-brand apparel.

I give the Setting: (A+)


AUDIOBOOK NOTES

Stellar audiobook. If you listen to books, check this one out.

I give the Audiobook: (A)


LESSONS LEARNED

  • Discretion is the better part of valor. I got the feeling that the author wanted to include the scenes a)with the 9 Lords and b)the peace conference with kings and queens. The story would have been better off if those scenes were removed.
  • Establish your villains early on, and don’t leave your readers in the dark as to the motivations and plans of the bad guys. This is doubly true if your bad guy is the proactive force moving the plot to it’s climax, as was the case here. Abby wound up holding the villain ball because she wasn’t well enough thought out.
  • Don’t be afraid to write combo-genre books. Steampunk+djinn=fun.
  • Always do a structural check of a story, to see if there are any obvious room for structural improvement.

WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE?

  • People who want to read a fun, LGBT Indiana Jones-like protagonist.
  • If you want to read a dapper protagonist.
  • People who want to read character-forward fiction.
  • A fun mystery in a clockwork, djinn and angel occupied Cairo.
  • If you like random Kaiju fights.

SUMMARY

Good book. This might be the best book I’ve read so far this year. I heartily recommend it.


STARS: 4.25 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 Stars=Perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended)


Goodreads

Genres/Tagwords: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Steampunk, Mystery, Historical fiction, Ottoman, Egypt

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:

A Review of ‘The Haunting of Tram Car 015’ by P. Djeli Clark


Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:

  1. A Review of ‘The Haunting of Tram Car 015’ by P. Djeli Clark
  2. Why you should read ‘Rings, Swords and Monsters: Exploring Fantasy Literature’ by Michael D. C. Drout
  3. A Literary Study of ‘Gideon the Ninth’ by Tamsyn Muir
  4. A Review of ‘The Book of Rumi’ by Rumi
  5. A Review of ‘Unsouled’ by Will Wight
  6. A Review of ‘Terrier’ by Tamora Pierce
  7. A Review of ‘Breach of Peace’ by Daniel B. Greene

And The Rest of My In Depth Reviews

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