Hugo Nominee Review: A Master of Djinn – P. Djéli Clark

This year, I’m reviewing all of the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award. My hope is to provide a brief overview, an analysis of world-building, characters, and narrative pace/structure, and what I feel its strengths and weaknesses are. I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers but will necessarily be dealing with some specifics.

Overview of A Master of Djinn by P. Djéli Clark from the back of the book: “Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie. So, when the members of a secret brotherhood are murdered, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. The murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, who transformed the world fifty years ago when he opened the veil between the magical and mundane realms before vanishing into the unknown. Using dangerous magical abilities, he instigates unrest on the streets of Cairo that threatens to spill over onto the global stage. Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city – or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems…”

World-building: 5/5
I adore what Clark has done here. Alternate history is hard to do, especially in fantasy when it is important to maintain connections to the real world while also providing something new. Clark effortlessly drops us into a new Cairo that at times plays with our preconceptions and gives off a vibrant and exciting setting for the story to play out in. The presence of the djinn, forms of magic, other mythical creatures, and the supernatural are woven in very well to present a compelling world. My favorite details are some of the architectural ones, the explorations of the different types of djinn and their temperaments, and how Clark engages throughout with post-colonial themes and discussions.

Characters: 4.5/5
Fatma is an excellent character to guide us through this story. She’s likeable, smart, at times funny, and very good at her job. Some of the other characters are likewise distinct and have clear motivations of their own, in particular Hadia, Fatma’s rookie partner on the job. My favorite character is Siti, though I felt her presence was underused at times and I would have liked to know a lot more about her history and motivations. The antagonist was uninteresting and almost cartoonishly power-hungry once revealed.

Narrative Pace/Structure: 3/5
The first two thirds were excellent. The mystery keeps readers intrigued along with the world-building. The beats of the story progress seamlessly from one to the next and the revelation of both the world and the mystery are such that each answer brings with it just the right number of questions to draw us further in.

And then it all fell apart. The reveal of the antagonist was predictable, the tension in the final third was supposed to be building but each subsequent section felt too formulaic, was closed out too easily (feeling a bit more like video game levels), and the grand finale was more like a poorly choreographed superhero showdown. Clark was unable to match the carefully crafted subtlety in his characters and world building to the story he was telling.

Overall: 4/5
I’ll definitely be trying to find the short stories set before this one; I look forward to more of Clark’s writing, and just hope he can work on the pacing of his longer fiction because the rest of it is so good. Enjoyable, but would not give this a Hugo award.

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