In a period running from Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign in 1800 to the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the 1920s, French, British and American cultures had an ongoing obsession with the aesthetics of Ancient Egypt. It was a predatory obsession involving exploitation, colonisation and outright theft but also one that influenced esotericism, literature and style (e.g. the art-deco movement).
In P. Djèlí Clark alternative universe, Egypt has entered the twentieth century as a dynamic new world power. Fueled by the country’s collaboration with djinn and other supernatural beings, the nation has lept forward technologically and socially. The reshaped world is one the author has explored in a series of novellas that each use a detective mystery format to explore this re-imagined modern Egypt. A Master of Djinn is the first full-length novel of the series and brings back the stylish Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities as the lead detective.
While world history has changed, the lingering forces of our own history are still making themselves felt in Fatma’s Cairo. She is called to investigate the apparent mass-murder of a leading British businessman in Cairo society and his guests. Those guests were all part of a semi-secret occult brotherhood dedicated to the businessman’s hobby of collecting artefacts connected to Al-Jahiz — the Sudanese mystic who had re-introduced djinn to the modern world decades earlier.
What follows is a paranormal detective story that weaves in Clark’s re-imagined world with aspects of modern history and the “Egyptmania” of Western Europe. The attempt to own and control the cultural treasures of Egypt runs through the story as Egypt’s new power interacts with the old forces of European empire and capitalism.
If you have read and enjoyed the novellas, you will enjoy this. Familiar characters return and the extra length allows them to be explored in more depth along with the dynamics of the djinn-fueled city of Cairo. The central mystery of the plot has its own twists and turns and while the final revelations are not that surprising, it is a satisfying mystery adventure with an action-full climax.
From a Hugo perspective, there is an obvious comparison to be made with the 2021 Best Novel winner Network Effect, the novel-length Murderbot story. Although quite different genres, both novels are sequels to a successful set of novellas that have received consistent Hugo attention. Both novels are longer stories with established characters that deliver on the qualities that people admired in the earlier works.
Personally, I absolutely love Murderbot but I didn’t put Network Effect near the top of my ballot. I’m happy it won but I don’t think Network Effect added anything that hadn’t already been recognised with a Hugo. I’d say the same here. A Master of Djinn is a great story, deserving of a finalist spot and would make for a decent winner but my top vote is more likely to go elsewhere.