Del Rey, 2 September 2021
Available as: HB, 528pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy
I'm grateful to Orbit for a free advance copy of A Master of Djinn to consider for review, and to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for inviting me onto the book's blogtour.
I found A Master of Djinn a very clever, very satisfying story on many levels. Taking us back to the fantastical Egypt of short stories A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015, A Master of Djinn is a full length novel set in a world where supernatural spirits mingle freely with humans. In Egypt, these are, naturally, the djinn whose tales feature so much Middle Eastern folklore. In other parts of the world they may be other entities - goblins, for example, in Germany. And in some places, they are not welcome at all: the United Kingdom, for example, which as a result has suffered reverses and is in danger of losing what remains of its Empire.
In Cairo, Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, charged with keeping a lid on the exuberance of the magical. Fatma is a glorious character, favouring sharp suits and never at a loss for a quip even in the face of the gravest danger. She's saved the universe before, and is the ideal person to call in to deal with the mass murder, apparently by magical means, of a secret society led by the reclusive British aristocrat and industrialist, Lord Worthington. Worthington's secret was dedicated to the retrieval of artefacts related to Al-Jahiz, the mystic who, fifty years before, opened up a route to the spiritual dimension from which the djinn and other magical beings proceed. As a pretender to Al-Jahiz's legacy emerges, stirring up the Cairo mob and alleging collusion with foreign interests, it becomes imperative to solve the murder before Worthington's finds collection can be put to a sinister use...
P Djèlí Clark's ambitious story takes this intriguing premise and runs with it with great gusto, building on scraps of history, mythology and folktale to give us an immediately recognisable and believable world. There is Cairo the crossroads of East and West, where a dilettante aristocracy, obsessed with the past, may encounter more than he expects; a teeming world of djinn working in the city alongside humans, running bookshops, developing gambling habits, tricking marks with the old three wishes dodge; there are ancient Egyptian gods, holdovers from the past but still with some power; haughty angels who seem to have their own distinct plans; and much more.
He also gives us, in Fatma, an engaging and self-possessed protagonist, very much going her own way (especially when girlfriend Siri is on the scene) but not above misjudgements, as when she's teamed up with rookie Hadia - Fatma very much prefers to work alone and finds it hard to make the accommodations she needs to when mentoring a partner. I enjoyed the relationship between the two, which could have become clichéd but instead develops into something real, warm and alive.
Set against a background of the European powers drifting into war - the book features a peace conference brokered by Egypt and a walk on by nobody less than Kaiser Bill himself - the story is skilfully pitched to reflect on 20th century Great Power relationships and their colonial implications without being bound by them, rather it shows other paths that might be taken and leaves us to speculate how these might influence the future (including our future). It doesn't lack villains, whether megalomaniac humans or haughty djinn, and the fun isn't so much in the revelations of who they are (I spotted one fairly early on) as in how the ramified power politics between will unwind, what the effect will be on wider society - and who will die. All of that keeps the reader guessing, with plenty of twists and turns, perilous episodes and ingenious revelations. It is, basically, fun from start to finish and I hope to be able to read more in this world soon.
For more information about A Master of Djinn, see the Orbit website here and be sure to catch all the stops on the blog tour - listed on the poster below. You can buy A Master of Djinn from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop dot com, from Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.
I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for an advance copy of No Honour to consider for review and to Anne at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in this blogtour.
For more in formation No Honour, see the Orenda Books website here or the other stops on the tour, listed on the poster below. You can buy No Honour from your local bookshop, or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.
|Blog tour poster for "No Honour"|
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of A Narrow Door via NetGalley to consider for review.
'Becky was an only child, and yet she had a brother'.
The first thing I should say about A Narrow Door is that it's the third part of a trilogy of psychological thrillers set in and around the same private grammar school, St Oswald's, and the town of Malbry. I hadn't read the previous books (shame on me) but A Narrow Door works very well as a standalone thriller, while hinting at the background that has already been established and bringing back familiar characters.
The book is structured as a sort-of dialogue between the new Head of the school, Rebecca Buckfast, and old-school (in every sense of the world) Classics teacher, Roy Straitley. Buckfast is a new broom, having assumed the Headship after a period of turbulence. She is the first ever woman Head of what has previously been a boys-only school. Straitley initially presents as a crusted remnant of the Old Guard, but while the traditions of the school are written on his heart, he's actually much more complex. In a subplot, Buckfast's merger of the school with its' girls equivalent has added a new member to Straitley's familiar clique of "Brody Boys", who in the course of A Narrow Door, comes out as trans. We see Straitley working, with eventual success, to accept this. Similarly, while sceptical of Buckfast, he pays close attention to her story and often appreciates her troubled past and her various dilemmas.
Buckfast and Straitley are looking back from 2006 to events both in 1989, when she was a young supply teacher at St Oswald's even more hidebound local rival, King Henry's, and in the early 1970s when her older brother Conrad, then a King Henry's boy, disappeared. The conversation is brought on by the apparent discovery, on the school grounds, of a corpse and a King Henry's prefect badge. So Conrad's shadow, or ghost, hangs heavily over a story that is already presented as part of the past ('Everyone in this story is dead, or changed beyond recognition... The house is no longer a shrine to [Conrad]... No one living there listens to the numbers stations anymore.') but a past that Becky seems to interrogate (she knows who lives in that house now).
On the surface, Becky Buckfast is trying to persuade Roy Straitley not to report the discovery, for the good of the school. Perhaps "persuade" is the wrong term - overtly, she's explaining aspects of her earlier life and appealing to his interest in a friend, another former teacher, Eric Scoones, who has retired under a cloud. Then, she says, they can, together, make a decision. Underneath, of course, she's working flat out to influence him, drawing on a lifetime of men patronising and underestimating her.
The way that the apparent dialogue works is complex and absorbing. Though it's presented as it might have been spoken, what we read in Buckfast's account isn't all told to Straitley, and nor are his ruminations on it, though addressed to a "you", actually all said out loud to her. We may infer, I think, that she does more of the talking, but exactly how much each says, we are left to wonder. We "hear", therefore, a great deal of commentary from both, and soon appreciate that games are afoot (Buckfast: 'I'm rather good at meeting men's needs... They need to hear their praises sung') if not what the rules are.
So we know very soon that Buckfast is the unreliable narrator supreme, that she's delaying some information, suppressing or spinning others - but not what, or exactly, why. Harris takes her time laying out Becky's earlier life, centred on the trauma of her brother's disappearance when she was six years old and the effect it had on her and on her parents. They are subsequently cold to her, obsessed with Conrad and refuse ('cocooned in their grief like a pair of dead moths') to accept that he might be dead, laying a place for him at the table and speaking of him in the present tense. Darker still is her father's descent into conspiracy theories about "numbers stations" - the image of the stricken house silent apart from a radio reciting strings of numbers in a flat voice is a strong and compelling one - and the periodic appearance of some imposter trying to impersonate Conrad.
Alongside this we see the 1989 Becky, having endured nearly twenty years of this frosty treatment, reappear for her temporary job at King Henry's (where she was with Conrad when he vanished). She's not yet the armoured, assured Head of 2006 and suffers greatly from the sneering patriarchy of the school Common Room and of the boys she's meant to be teaching. Yet she has a nose for secrets, of which there are many in this book. Becky takes the King Henry's job to the disgust of her boyfriend and later fiancé Dominic ('charming, funny and smart') who has 'rescued' her and her young daughter from a life of wearying poverty. Dominic seemed to me to have somewhat controlling tendencies: the background to these is just one of the fascinating secrets that is gradually made clear. Indeed secrets - and, closely related, memories, fantasies and lies - prove to be at the centre of the narrative (the story itself, the version of it that Becky is giving to Roy, and the acting out that all involved here have been engaged in ('They look so real, those memories, and yet they were a performance'). There is a hole in the middle of everything in that Becky does not (did not) remember what happened to her brother while, as a six year old girl anxious to please her parents, the police and adult authorities in general she was continually pressed to expand on the confused impressions she did have, leading to a whole structure of fantasy growing to fill the gap.
The exploration of that fantasy, which to a degree the adult Becky now seems to have weaponised in the service of her plans, and its relation both to the person she has become and to the role she now fills, makes up the bulk of this story and it is completely, absolutely, enthralling. (At times the book can be very disturbing, and Becky's childhood fears - never far from the surface - erupt to consume her). Beware, however, for nothing here is quite what it seems.
Harris's unwrapping of the all the layers here fascinates, casting light especially on patriarchy, variously represented by the cliquish schoolmasters, everyday men who, Becky recalls, 'at twenty three I was quite unaware of how often [they] turned to locked at me', and her patronising and controlling fiancé ('To be a woman... is to be the constant recipient of unwanted pieces of male advice.')
In all, a wonderful read and I am kicking myself for having missed the previous part of this trilogy, something I need to put right very quickly!
For more information about A Narrow Door, see the publisher's website here.
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|Design by Julia Lloyd|
|Cover design by Neil Lang|
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Rookery via NetGalley.
In the followup story to The Nightjar, Hewitt returns to her magical, alternate London - the Rookery of the title - where members of rival magical cliques, each with different gifts, compete to work marvels.
Following the disappearance and subsequently the death of her friend Jen, Alice has settled into her new life: by day, she is research assistant for the irascible Professor Reid (Alice sees herself as assisting with research, while Reid regards Alice as her assistant), at night she studies for the entrance tests to join House Mielikki, whose members are skilled in magic involving plants. Much of the action taking place in the Rookery itself, the story is perhaps rather more grounded in everyday life (for certain values of "everyday") than its predecessor, following Alice's state of mind, and her cooler relations with Crowley, after the revelations and tragedies of The Nightjar.
All is, however, not well. Alice herself is ailing, her inheritance as a daughter of the Lord of Death clashing with the life force of House Mielikki. Equally worryingly, the balance of the Rookery itself seems to have been upset, causing damage - sinkholes, floods, and collapsing buildings - that nobody knows how to prevent. And, most sinisterly of all, somebody is targeting Alice. We're reminded that the Rookery is not a safe place and that her background and the story so far have left others with reasons to distrust and dislike her.
Much of The Rookery is, then, focussed on Alice trying to learn more about her background and her place in Rookery society, hampered not only by those attempts to harm her but by what seem like systematic efforts to bury the truth. It would be spoilery to say too much here, but I found the portrayal of a young woman discovering who she is, what has been done to protect her, and the sacrifice made for that, actually very moving amidst all the busyness of a fantasy novel, the danger and the risks Alice runs here. Acceptance into Rookery society doesn't means she has has free rein to ask questions or go where she likes, and finding out the truth requires her to break rules that could have her expelled from House Mielikki if she's exposed.
A lot of the action in the book follows Alice's unravelling of the past, and therefore involves her tracking people down and putting together clues - rather than being action-driven. I really enjoyed that (I worked out quite a lot of what was happening) but if you prefer your fantasy crammed with desperate combat, this one may not be for you. Not to say there aren't exciting action-y episodes here, there are. But they're not, I think, actually the point: as you will recall from The Nightjar, Alice bears a heavy burden in that her soul, unleashed, would be fearfully destructive - so the nightjar of the title, a sort of projection of Alice's conscience, serves the purpose of keeping her power under control. This means that combat and destruction are always her last, worst choice.
Overall this was a satisfying and enjoyable companion to The Nightjar, filling out aspects of the world that were hinted at there and giving Alice and her life time and space to develop (including a couple of rather steamy romantic scenes).
Notable for scenes in which the current state of affairs is referred to as a 'shitastrophe' and for the fact that one of the magical houses took care, decades ago, of accessibility requirements by enchanting their stairs to transform into ramps when a wheelchair approaches, this book takes place in a well-imagined and livable fantasy world, a place with real depth and peopled by well-rounded and diverse characters. (I particularly enjoyed the richly textured construction of the fictional Rookery, echoing London landmarks and London history but always with its own particular twist).
I'm not sure whether Hewitt plans further books set in the Rookery, but I'll be there for them if they come!
For more information about The Rookery, see the publisher's webpage here.
|Design by Julia Lloyd|
I'm grateful to the publisher for a free advance copy of The Somebody People via NetGalley.
The Somebody People picks up where The Nobody People, one of my favourite books of last year, paused. As Proehl notes in his acknowledgements, it is more like the second half of a story than a sequel and if you haven't read the first book yet there would be a lot of value in reading one immediately after the other as there are many linking storylines, key events and things whose significance evolves from one book to the next. I didn't do that of course, but I still found The Somebody People an exciting, satisfying and cathartic ending to the whole story.
The first book introduces the idea of "Resonants" - individuals with what we'd call superpowers. Their number has apparently been increasing through the second half of the 20th century and The Nobody People tells how they are eventually forced to go public provoking a storm of prejudice and, eventually, persecution.
That story was told partly through the eyes of Avi Hirsch, a journalist injured while embedded with the Army in Iraq, and we saw his increasing obsession with the Resonants alongside the slow collapse of his marriage to Kay. By the time The Somebody People opens, Hirsch is out of the picture but his daughter Emmeline features in the second book as do many of the characters from the first one. There are also some flashbacks to the earlier life of Kevin Bishop, the mysterious head of a school for Resonant kids in New York, including one that describes how it all started
Alongside the treatment of Resonants as a persecuted group, The Nobody People also pointed to a militant faction among them and this - and the reason behind it - features strongly in the present book, set a decade or so later following a Civil War in which the Resonants and in particular that Black Rose Faction gained the upper hand. There is an atmosphere of ethnic cleansing and segregation in the background of The Somebody People with battle lines drawn and the survivors of Bishop's circle seeking to defeat the evil that seems to be driving the Faction. The action to that end is complex, with multiple plot threads and various characters trying to cope, principally Fahima Deeb who's managing badly in the absence of ex-girlfriend Alyssa. Alyssa is a "baseliner" ie a "normal" person - referred to by the hardliners in the Black Rose Faction as "damps" - and had to leave New York during the "evacuations".
It's all fast moving and Proehl throws in concepts such as multiple timelines, extra-dimensional spaces and something very close to possession, to support or impede our heroes as they try to safeguard humanity and see off the Faction. There's a haunting sense of moral ambiguity (I love the smell of moral ambiguity in the morning...) as we know that the extremes seen here are in part a reaction to the persecution shown in The Nobody People. Characters here are damaged in various ways, physically and mentally, by what was done to them, or suffering from guilt at what they have done. There is a real sense in Proehl's writing that people make mistakes and do bad things for good reasons. There is also more than attach of PSTD in many of them. It all feels very real for a world with superpowered inhabitants - the stress is on the human dimension not the wondrous abilities - and there are very few characters I didn't have at least a sneaking sympathy for.
My favourites were possibly the gay couple Dom(inic) and Clay, Resonants with secure middle class jobs and an adopted boy at a prestigious school, who become concerned about what is happening around them and about his future and - rather than seeking sober advice - embark on what I feel are some spectacularly ill thought out plans, landing themselves in the centre of the action as a result. I enjoyed that despite it all, they seek to secure their relationship and protect their boy and that they are in a sense ordinary people who for most of the story are just trying to survive but who achieve some very brave things. Most of all, despite those dubious decisions, their hearts are always in the right place.
But there are many others here worth a mention. Kimani, perhaps, whose special power is to be able to create a room, outside space, which she can make appear anywhere on Earth (oh please, I want that ability!) and who uses it to shelter Emmeline. There's something special about Emmeline, and one of the themes of this book is her discovering that for herself and trying to learn how she can avoid being used by others, inevitably bringing her into conflict with both "sides" here.
In short, The Somebody People is both a rattling good story in its own right and an excellent completion of The Nobody People, teasing out themes that were sketched there and creating a wholeness to the story that confirms it is, indeed, a unity. I would recommend.
For more information about The Somebody People, see the publisher's website here.