Wow. I really need to read more P. Djèlí Clark! Picture the scene. It’s Cairo, 1912. The pungent aroma of the spice markets wafts through the evening air amid the hustle and bustle of the al-Gezira district. Aerial trams transport their passengers to and from the bazaars and coffee shops of the city. And an investigator from the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities finds the body of a dead djinn.
A DEAD DJINN IN CAIRO is a tantalisingly short book that follows Fatma, an investigator of this fascinatingly-titled ministry, as she follows the leads to solve the mystery of the deceased djinn. It’s a simple premise, a good old-fashioned mystery, except you may have noticed a few odd things about the alternate Cairo P. Djèlí Clark has dreamed up here. Other-worldly beings are a common fact of existence in a world where the fabric of reality between worlds has been haphazardly torn asunder and djinn, ghuls and even beings calling themselves ‘angels’ live and kill amidst the everyday people of early 20th century Egypt.
The setting is the real star of this short book and Djèlí Clark brings it to life with such wonderfully evocative prose that really highlights the richness of his imagination. I love love love it when writers are able to make a scene render itself in such vivid technicolour in your head without distracting from the story; the scenes in this book really pop and you can almost feel yourself standing in the room with Fatma as she investigates ancient leather-bound tomes, intricate sigils and ominous oil paintings. I swear I could hear the night vendors hawking their wares as she made her way through the bazaar, surrounded by the smell of peppery spices, baked bread and sweet oils. It was almost enough to overwhelm the senses. It reminded me of other writers like Aliette de Bodard and Nghi Vo, who have a similar talent for evocative storytelling that fully immerses you in the story in books like In The Vanishers Palace and The Empress of Salt and Fortune.
There’s glimpses of some great characters too. Fatma is witty, intelligent and determined not to let the remnants of the old, somewhat sexist attitudes of previous generations stifle her ambition and ability. And she rocks a very stylish suit. We get flashes of some other characters, such as the old-fashioned Inspector Aasim Sharif, who Fatma has a cordial working relationship with but butts heads on some cultural issues not in tune with the ‘modern’ Cairo. The Maker, an ‘angel’ in the process of constructing a strange and ground-breaking clock. And Siti, a street assassin linked to the underground House of the Lady of Stars. I know this is a work of short fiction, but I really would have loved this to be a longer book, one where we could get to know this cast of characters in more depth, find out where they come from and what makes them tick. It’s a great story but I felt it was over too quick and is done somewhat of an injustice by zooming through the plot so quickly. Though if the only bad thing I’ve got to say about a story is “there wasn’t enough of it” then I think that still qualifies as a compliment.
As a first foray into the writing of P. Djèlí Clark, you really can’t go wrong with A DEAD DJINN IN CAIRO. A delightful, short read that has me clamouring for more.
Did you find this review useful? Follow the blog and never miss a post!