Review: A Dead Djinn in Cairo, by P. Djèlí Clark

Russ Allbery eagle at
Thu Jun 23 21:17:53 PDT 2022

A Dead Djinn in Cairo
by P. Djèlí Clark

Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: May 2016
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     47

Fatma el-Sha'arawi is a special investigator with the Egyptian Ministry
of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities in an alternate
1912 Egypt. In Fatma's world, the mystic al-Jahiz broke through to the
realm of the djinn in the late 1800s, giving Egypt access to magic and
the supernatural and the djinn access to Egypt. It is now one of the
great powers of the world, able to push off the Europeans and control
its own politics.

This is a original novelette, so you can read it on-line for
free or drop $2 on a Kindle version for convenience. It's the first
story in the "Dead Djinn" universe, in which Clark has also written a
novella and a novel (the latter of which won the Nebula Award for best
novel in 2022).

There are three things here I liked. Fatma is a memorable character,
both for her grumpy demeanor as a rare female investigator having to
put up with a sexist pig of a local police liaison, and for her full
British attire (including a bowler hat) and its explanation. (The
dynamics felt a bit modern for a story set in 1912, but not enough to
bother me.) The setting is Arabian-inspired fantasy, which is a nice
break from the normal European or Celtic stuff. And there are
interesting angels (Fatma: "They're not really angels"), which I think
have still-underused potential, particularly when they can create
interesting conflicts with Coptic Christianity and Islam. Clark's
version are energy creatures of some sort inside semi-mechanical bodies
with visuals that reminded me strongly of Diablo III (which in this
context is a compliment). I'm interested to learn more about them,
although I hope there's more going on than the disappointing
explanation we get at the end of this story.

Other than those elements, there's not much here. As hinted by the
title, the story is structured as a police investigation and Fatma
plays the misfit detective. But there's no real mystery; the
protagonists follow obvious clue to obvious clue to obvious ending. The
plot structure is strictly linear and never surprised me. Aasim is an
ass, which gives Fatma something to react to but never becomes real
characterization. The world-building is the point, but most of it is
delivered in infodumps, and the climax is a kind-of-boring fight where
the metaphysics are explained rather than discovered.

I'm possibly being too harsh. There's space for novelettes that tell
straightforward stories without the need for a twist or a sting. But I
admit I found this boring. I think it's because it's not tight enough
to be carried by the momentum of a simple plot, and it's also not long
enough for either the characters or the setting to breathe and develop.
The metaphysics felt rushed and the characterization cramped. I liked
Siti and the dynamic between Siti and Fatma at the end of the story,
but there wasn't enough of it.

As a world introduction, it does its job, and the non-European fantasy
background is interesting enough that I'd be willing to read more, even
without the incentive of reading all award winning novels. But "A Dead
Djinn in Cairo" doesn't do more than its job. It might be worth
skipping (I'll have to read the subsequent works to know for certain),
but it won't take long to read and the price is right.

Followed by The Haunting of Tram Car 015.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-06-23


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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