By Alex Wallace
I know that I have already beaten this long-dead horse into a fine powder, but I really, really wish that the online alternate history community paid more attention to P. Djèlí Clark. We count among our classics many works with explicitly fantastical elements; indeed, the genre as we understand it came from portal fantasy stories. The problem, I think, is that Clark and alternate historians like us fundamentally occupy two different large social groups. We have the community that grew around the works of Harry Turtledove and S. M. Stirling and Eric Flint, among others; most of us have read at least some of each of those authors. Clark, however, is more mentioned in a more modern segment of broader science fiction and fantasy, one that is much more concerned with diversity and social justice than we tend to be. This is the circle of N. K. Jemisin, Becky Chambers, Ted Chiang and Cixin Liu, among many others, and there is only so much overlap between these two circles.
In this review, I hope to bridge that gap a bit, for Clark is a rare sort of person: the dedicated alternate history author. So many of our classics come from authors who dipped into the genre once and never touched it again; this includes Robert Harris, Philip K. Dick, Philip Roth and Len Deighton, among others. There are not many writers who write so extensively in this genre. Indeed, Clark was nominated for a Hugo in 2020 for The Haunting of Tram Car 015, a detective story set in his vividly realized steampunk urban fantasy Cairo.
It is in this Cairo that Clark sets his most recent work, his first novel A Master of Djinn. This is the third work of the shared universe that Clark has used multiple times, not only in The Haunting of Tram Car 015 but also in his short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo, published via Tor.com. To answer the question the reader doubtlessly has: neither is essential to understand A Master of Djinn, but this novel has elements of both. I would recommend reading both, partially to understand this novel, but also because they are very good (as is Clark’s other work).
The alternate history of the world that underpins these three works is the revelation of the supernatural to the world by a man named al-Jahiz in 1872; by the present of the novel, he has been dead for a few decades, and supernatural creatures live along humanity. Cairo is populated by djinn, who are the most visible of these new neighbors, as well as by other such beings, mostly from Islamic mythology. The end result is something that may remind the veteran alternate historian of Harry Turtledove’s The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, which approaches the supernatural in an urban context in a very similar way.
The inciting incident of the novel is the murder of a number of Englishmen in a home in Cairo by a man claiming to be al-Jahiz himself. To solve such a crime, the task falls to Fatma el-Sha’arawi, an agent with the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. She is a gender-flipped version of a character that is seen in many novels: the hardened detective fighting against bureaucracy and society to solve a heinous crime. She is quite the likeable character, but she is not the only one; I have to say my favorite character was Siti, a longtime confidante (among other things) of Fatma with a quick wit and many secrets. You meet djinn and humans and other creatures, some of whom whose imagery I will not soon forget.
The plot is of a type that has been seen in much alternate history: the mystery. Works like Fatherland or The Yiddish Policemen’s Union use such a plot for a key reason: mysteries are very keen on details and on atmosphere, and alternate history delivers heavily on both to deliver maximum impact. As the old saying goes, “every murder tells the tale of a city,” and here that city is a sprawling steampunk Cairo, vividly realized and painted exquisitely with Clark’s vivid prose. There are all sorts of strange nooks and crannies in this Cairo, not all of them obeying the laws of Euclidean geometry, and it is such fun to ramble through.
Beyond the surface level, this book has much to say about power of all stripes. There is the ever-present conflict between Fatma and the Ministry, which objects to her methods and also to the fact that she is one of the first women working for said institution. There is also much to be said about how Egypt only recently became a world power due to the coming of the supernatural; there are a number of Europeans who figure into the plot, and the dynamics between Egypt and her neighbors across the Mediterranean are very much in play. The ending has a very bold take on nature of conflict and authority that reminded me strongly of Timothy Zahn’s Conquerors trilogy; it is an ending that dares to question the standard treatment of power in speculative literature more generally.
This book is nothing less than a tour de force of alternate history; through this book, Clark shows himself to be rightly ranked as among the best alternate history writers of recent years. And yet, it is frankly somewhat appalling that he hasn’t gotten his due among the broader alternate history community. A Master of Djinn dares to break out of the well-trod confines of Atlantic history, particularly World War II and the American Civil War, and give us something that reads like a breath of fresh air. Clark has shown us what alternate history can be at its best; daring, bold, human, and not constrained by decades-old orthodoxy. In A Master of Djinn, Clark has shown us the future of the genre; we had best follow the trail he has blazed.