P. Djèlí Clark 2021 – Dead Djinn Universe #1
Meet Fatma – unapologetically snappy dresser, wearer of bowler hats, djinn-wrangler, human.
Fatma el-Sha’arawi is an Agent with the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities in 1912 Cairo – and what a Cairo it is! Visitors encounter humans, djinn as small as a mouse or as big as a house, talking cats, trickster angels, warriors, and mechanical eunuchs. Enter a hut, and you may find yourself in a palace. Which is the illusion – the palace or the hut?
This is the challenge faced by Fatma: she must discern reality from illusion at every turn in her quest to foil the masked stranger who identifies himself as al-Jahiz, the legendary warrior, returned to this world to turn it upside down after slaughtering the group that summoned him.
Luckily, Fatma is not working alone; she has a new partner in the Ministry, and a person from her past is still with her, offering support. The three are assisted by a ragtag urban task force of humans, djinn, booksellers, musicians, healers, and old aunties.
This is an adventure – swordplay, romance, danger, a riddle solved, and an epic final conflict. I don’t usually like adventure novels, but the endearing characters intrigued me. I listened to the audiobook, and narrator Suehyla el-Attar is the perfect choice for this role.
The plot is entertaining, mainly due to the fantastical creatures involved, but at one point the pace seems to speed up, with large-scale national events described in the space of a few paragraphs. I had a sense that the events would have taken months to unfold, but then found that Fatima had moved forward only a day or two in time. The resulting cognitive dissonance took me out of the story.
Also, when I figured out who this villain was well before the big reveal (as did other reviewers, based on my research), I was disappointed. This would have been a bigger pain point, but the many surprises after the reveal made up for the miss.
P. Djèlí Clark is the pen name for professor, historian, and science fiction author Gabriel Dexter. Although this book is labelled as #1 in the Dead Djinn Universe, Clark has written other shorter works featuring the same world.