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, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.
So, when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world forty years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.
Alongside her Ministry colleagues and a familiar person from her past, 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…
I have to thank Nalini Singh and her newsletter, which is where I first learned about this author’s work. I read the two novellas that are prequels to this novel (A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015). I think you could read this novel and enjoy it without reading the novellas before, but the novellas are really good and they also give you context for Fatma’s relationships–like the person from her past and her colleagues. This book was also one of my anticipated books for 2021, and I am here to tell you that I was not disappointed, except that the book ended and I had to put it down then. This book has a romantic subplot, but the main focus of the book is the case Fatma is solving. Clark uses ideas of decolonialization, class, racism, and power in the book, weaving them into your typical procedural science fiction/urban fantasy story (think Ilona Andrews and Meljean Brook). The evil is stopped, but Fatma has to acknowledge some things about herself before she can stop it. The book ends on a bit of a cliff hanger, but it isn’t too painful.
Fatma is one of the few women who work in the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, not just the youngest agent or the youngest woman. She is driven and self-confident, important traits for someone who wants to break into a profession where there aren’t a lot of women working as agents. In the first few chapters of the book, Fatma is assigned a partner–much to her annoyance–who is also a woman. They are not romantically involved. However, their relationship is important to the book and to Fatma’s development as a character. Fatma usually works alone, or with the help of a colleague, but the colleague is definitely in the sidekick role, not the partner role in those cases. Her new partner is not interested in being a sidekick. As for the romance in the novel, it is with Siti, who has also shown up in the two previous novellas. She has her own secrets, but they aren’t a factor until later in the book. Fatma’s confidence in herself plays into the antagonist’s hands, as do the assumptions she makes about the antagonist. They aren’t bad assumptions, or even necessarily incorrect, but they do make solving the case more difficult.
Part of what Fatma needs to do in order to stop the antagonist is be very specific about what she wants and what that means, practically speaking. That requires her to come to terms with how she has pursued power and how the antagonist pursued power and what differentiates them. This is not as difficult as it might seem because Fatma is curious and spends her free time with people who are not like her — with Americans, for instance — and Siti. She doesn’t look down on people poorer than her, the way the antagonist does.
On top of all this subtle character development, Clark also incorporates a lot of intricate world building. The place where Fatma works is one example of this, with a djinn librarian and the whole building run by a clockwork “brain” of sorts, and a cool, but scary, forensic scientist. But then we’re taken to an area of the city where artisans like to do things by hand, the old-fashioned way, which is still valued in this bustling, magnificent city. And, as I said earlier, there is a part of the city where a lot of poor people live, which Fatma visits on various occasions and which is described in just as much detail as the glamorous parts of the city.
I think you should all go read this book. I really hope that there will be more books set in this world and I look forward to reading more from Clark in the future. A note for people who really want to know: the romantic subplot ends on a happy for now, not a HEA.