Book Review: “A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark

It’s been almost a week since I finished this book and I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to write this review, because I really loved the storyline, but I didn’t like how it all played out. Also, please note that this book is billed as the “Dead Djinn Universe Book #1,” which is important later.

Let’s start with what I liked about this book: I loved the world-building. It’s set in 1910s Egypt, where Djinn (and all their different sub-species) live among the humans, and there are a ton of automatons. The automatons mostly take up the jobs that servants would be doing, so the Djinn aren’t enslaved – they own shops and can do basically whatever they want, and the humans and the celestial appear to live in harmony with each other (at least for now). There are driverless carriages, there are mechanical eunuchs, and the whole world is so interesting and rich and filled with so many different things that I want to walk down the streets and stop and look into every nook and cranny to see what happens.

Unfortunately, beyond the world-building, there’s very little else interesting going on.

We’ll start with Fatma. She’s big into the “not like other girls” mindset, and refuses to let anyone help her. She’s frustrated that her girlfriend keeps appearing and disappearing on a whim, she doesn’t want to work with the partner (Hadia) that her precinct assigns to her, and she continuously runs head-first into dangerous situations without stopping to think. As the main character, you’d think that Fatma would be the most interesting character to read about, but she’s bland and irritating, at best. She flouts the ministry’s dress code, and the author goes out of his way to talk about how she’s defying gender norms and how she smirks about it. It’s frustrating. She also could not see the very, very obvious villain when it’s clear from the third or fourth chapter (I can’t remember which) who the villain is and about halfway through the book another event happens that basically proves it, and thus when the “big reveal” happened at the end, I was yawning and hoping something else interesting would happen.

All of the interesting stuff happens off-screen, too. For example, Fatma blacks out during the two biggest parts of the book: when she confronts the main villain at a party, and when she witnesses the start of the “final battle.” Spoilers: I think I was most upset about the “final battle” because it literally starts when the Djinn look at the Villain and say, “Well, we’re pacifists now, and we’re not gonna enslave humanity.” What?

The absolute biggest issue with this book is that it reads like the second or third book in a series, except it’s labeled as Book #1. I did some research while writing this review and found out that there is a short story and a novella that should be read first before reading this, because it gives some of the back story as to who Fatma is and how she came to rise so high in the ministry’s ranks. There’s not even anything at the start of the book that says, “Hey, you should probably go read these other short works first before getting into this book, or you’ll be frustrated the entire time.” The book is written like you should know everything about the back story already, and the way the author tries to remedy this (because according to a lot of answers on GoodReads, you don’t have to read these works first…but you really should!) by shoving so much exposition and backstory into the most random parts of the story, which leads to the plot coming to a screeching halt while he goes over something that should have really been a stand-alone book, before yanking you back into the main story line.

I just really, really wanted to love this book, but as it is, I don’t think I can give it much more than a 2.5 star rating. The world is beautiful and I’d love so much, but everything interesting happens off-screen (like a specific person turning into a crocodile god deus ex machina). The side characters are more interesting than the main character, and the book is so sloppily put together that I wish the short stories had been turned into a full-length novel and this book was the second in the series. I feel like that would have solved so many of the issues with this book. The main villain could have been “hidden” a little better, though, because it’s so glaringly obvious from the beginning that it’s embarrassing how long it takes Fatma to understand what’s going on. I don’t think I’ll be continuing this series, but if you’re not bothered by bad character writing and a disappointing ending, then give it a shot for the world alone.

And as always, keep reading.

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