A Magical Deal Goes Sideways in This Excerpt From Cairo-Set Fantasy A Master of Djinn

A Magical Deal Goes Sideways in This Excerpt From Cairo-Set Fantasy A Master of Djinn
Image: Tor.com

P. Djèlí Clark has won Nebula, Locus, and Alex Awards for his short-format work, and he’s got a new novella, Ring Shout, coming in October. But today, Gizmodo is thrilled to share a look at his first full-length novel, A Master of Djinn — due next year and set in the author’s magical, alt-history version of Cairo.

Here’s a brief summary to set the scene:

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 fifty 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 her clever girlfriend Siti, 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…

And here’s the full cover, making its debut here on Gizmodo:

Image: Tor.com Image: Tor.com

Finally, here’s a very fun exclusive excerpt. Watch out for that bottle!

Fatma leaned forward, puffing on her hookah. The maassel was a blend of pungent tobacco, soaked in honey and molasses, with hints of herbs, nuts, and fruit. But there was another taste: sweet to the point of sickly that tickled the tongue. Magic. It made the fine hairs along the nape of her neck tingle.

The small crowd that had gathered watched her expectantly. A big-nosed man in a white turban leaned so close over her shoulder she could smell the soot that covered him — an ironworker by the stink of it. He shushed a companion, which only made others grumble. From the corner of her eye, she caught Khalid giving both men a withering glare — his broad face drawing tight. Never a good idea to upset the bookie.

Like most, they’d probably wagered on her opponent, who sat across the octagonal table. All of seventeen she guessed, with a face even more boyish than her own. But he had already bested men twice his age. More important, he was a he, which still held weight even in Cairo’s flaunted modernity — which explained the smile on his dark lips.

Some more traditional ahwa still didn’t cater to women, especially where hookahs were smoked, which was most. But this seedy den, tucked into a disreputable back alley, didn’t care who it served. Still, Fatma could count the women on one hand. Most left gambling to the men. Three sitting at a far-off table in the dim room were unmistakably Forty Leopards, in garish bright red kaftans and hijabs, with blue Turkish trousers. From their disdainful looks, you’d think them wealthy socialites — not the most notorious thieving gang in the city.

Fatma filtered everyone out — gambling men, smug boys, and haughty lady thieves alike — fixing on the water bubbling in the hookah’s bulbous vase. She imagined it a flowing river, real enough to wet her fingertips as she inhaled its scent. Taking a long pull from the wooden pipe, she let the enchanted maassel work through her, before exhaling a thick column.

It didn’t look like regular smoke — more silver than grey. Didn’t move like smoke either, knitting together instead of dissipating. It took some seconds to coalesce, but when it did, Fatma couldn’t help feeling a bit of triumph. A vaporous river snaked across the air as a felucca sailed its surface, the triangular lateen sail stretched taut, and leaving ripples its wake.

Every eye in the coffee shop followed the ethereal vessel. Even the Forty Leopards looked on in wonder. Across the table, her challenger’s smile gave way to open-mouthed astonishment. When the magic was spent and the smoke cleared, he shook his head, setting down the tube of his water pipe in defeat. The crowd roared.

Fatma sat back to praises as Khalid stood to collect up his money. Enchanted maassel was a banned substance: a slapdash of sorcery and alchemical compounds that mimicked a drug. The addicted traded away their lives chasing the next great conjuration. Luckily, a milder form had been popular back at the women’s college at Luxor. And as a student, she’d taken part in a duel or two. Or three. Maybe more.

“Ya salam!” the kid called. “Shadia, you’re as good as the Usta claimed.”

Al-Usta was Khalid’s nickname. The old Turkish title was addressed to drivers, laborers, mechanics, or craftsmen — anyone really who was very good at what they did. She was sure Khalid had never done an honest day’s work in his life. But when it came to handling bets, there was none better.

“One of the best, I tell you,” the bookie added, sitting to count through a wad of bills.

Khalid had come up with that name, Shadia. The big man was her guide into this seedier side of Cairo, where Fatma el-Sha’arawi, special investigator with the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, would draw unwanted attention.

“Wallahi!” the kid exclaimed. “Never seen a conjuring so real. What’s your secret, eh?”

The “secret” was what any first year picked up in lessons on mental elemental manipulation — choose real experiences over imagined ones. Hers had been an uncle’s boat she’d sailed dozens of times.

“As Khalid — the Usta — said, I’m one of the best.”

The kid snorted. “Wouldn’t have figured it.” He tilted a chin at her suit — an all-white number with a matching vest that looked sublime on her russet-brown skin. Fatma ran fingers down the length of a gold tie, certain to show off the glittering cuff links on her dark blue shirt.

“Jealous?”

The kid snorted again, folding arms across a tanned kaftan. Definitely jealous.

“How about you give me what I came for, and I’ll send you to my tailor.”

“Gamal,” Khalid said. “Let’s get on with business. Shadia’s been patient enough.”

More than patient. That trait wasn’t her strong suit. But undercover work demanded it. Thieves were inherently distrustful, and only some penchant for their vices ever put them at ease. She checked a golden pocket watch fashioned like an antique asturlab. Half past ten.

“Night’s not getting any younger.”

The kid cocked his head. “What do you say, Saeed? Shadia look like a business partner?”

Gamal’s companion, who sat beside him, stopped chewing his nails long enough to mutter, “Let’s be done with it, ok?” The lanky youth looked even younger than Gamal, with jutting ears and a halo of coiled hair. His eyes never met Fatma’s, and she hoped it was because of the persona she hoped to affect: a young socialite willing to pay heavily for pilfered goods.

“Then let’s go somewhere private,” Khalid offered. He gestured to a back room and rose to go. Fatma smoothed back her mop of cropped black curls before putting on a black bowler, preparing to stand. She stopped halfway, noticing neither young man had moved.

“No,” Gamal said. Saeed looked as perplexed as they did.

“No?” The way the big man stretched out the word should have cowed anyone. But not the kid.

“Wander off to secret places and you give people ideas. Maybe come up on one of us on our way out and try to find what that secret is. We can conduct our business right here. What’s the big deal? Wallahi, no one’s even paying us any mind.”

Fatma was certain everyone was paying them every bit of mind. In a place like this, you grew eyes in the back of your head, the sides, and the top. Still, kid had a point. She met Khalid’s questioning gaze. He looked ready to snatch the kid bodily out of his chair. But as entertaining as that might be, probably best to not create a scene. She lowered back into her seat. Khalid sighed, doing the same.

“So let’s see it, then,” Fatma demanded.

Saeed unslung a brown satchel from his shoulder and set it on the table. As he reached inside, Fatma found her hand gripping the lion-headed pommel of her cane. Patience.

“Wait.” Gamal put out a restraining arm. “Let’s see the money.”

Fatma gripped tighter. This kid was becoming annoying.

“That isn’t how we conduct business,” Khalid chided.

“It’s how I conduct it, Uncle.” His eyes fixed on Fatma. “You have it?”

She didn’t answer right away. Instead she met his gaze — until some of his bravado wilted. Only then did she reach into her jacket to pull out a roll of banknotes. The blue-green paper affixed with the royal seal glittered in the kid’s eyes, and he licked his lips before nodding. Saeed looked relieved and drew out an object from the satchel. Fatma’s breath caught.

It looked like a bottle made of metal instead of glass, with a pear-shaped bottom inlaid with flowering gold designs that ran up a long neck. Its surface was tarnished a dull bronze, but she guessed it was brass.

“It’s old,” Saeed noted, fingers tracing the engravings. “I’m thinking maybe from the Abbasids. That’s at least a thousand years.”

Good eye. So under that nervous gaze was a scholar.

“We found it fishing. I was thinking it was meant to hold perfume or used by early alchemists. But this . . .” His hand went to a stopper at the bottle’s top, running along a jade ceramic seal engraved with a dragon. “Never seen it’s like before. Chinese maybe? Tang? Don’t recognise the writing either. And the wax is fresh, like it was just put on yesterday — ”

“You haven’t removed any of it, have you?” Fatma cut in.

The sharpness in her tone sent his eyes wide.

“Usta Khalid told us not to. That the seal intact was part of the sale.”

“Glad you listened. Or you might have wasted all our time.”

“Aywa,” Gamal sighed. “What I want to know is what’s so special about it? Saeed and I find lots of junk. Every day, wallahi. Everything people throw into the Nile comes up again. We sell them to rich people like you. But no one’s ever offered so much, wallahi. I’ve heard other things — ”

“Gamal,” Saeed cut in. “It’s not the time to start that again.”

“I think it’s a fine time,” Gamal replied, eyes fixed on Fatma. “My old setty used to tell me stories of djinn imprisoned in bottles being thrown into the sea — long before al-Jahiz brought them back into the world. She said fishermen would sometimes find them, and when they freed the djinn, it would grant their greatest desires. Wallahi! Three wishes, that could make you a king or the richest man in the world!”

“Do I look like your setty?” Fatma asked. But this time, the kid’s bravado didn’t waver.

“No deal,” he said suddenly. Grabbing the bottle, he pushed it back into the satchel. In her mind, Fatma howled.

Saeed looked flummoxed. “Ya Allah! What are you doing? We need that money!”

Gamal made a chiding sound. “Ah! Wallahi, you’re only smart with books! Think! If this is what I believe it is — what she believes it is — we could use it ourselves! Ask for money to rain from the skies! Or turn a whole pyramid to gold!”

“The two of you are making a mistake,” Khalid warned. His dark face was like a storm, and the white hair that surrounded it bristling clouds. “Take this deal and go your own way. By the Merciful, it isn’t wise — ”

“Isn’t wise?” Gamal mocked. “Are you a shaykh now? Going to start reciting hadith? You don’t frighten us, old man. So eager to take the bottle off us when we came to you. Then when we refused, you were even more eager to set up this deal. The two of you in this together? Thinking to cheat us? Best be careful. Might use one of our wishes on you, wallahi!”

Fatma had heard enough. Should have known the kid wouldn’t be an honest broker, not with all the wallahis he threw around. Anybody who swore to God that habitually couldn’t be trusted. So much for doing this the easy way. Reaching back into her jacket, she drew out a bit of silver and placed it flat onto the table. The old Ministry identification had been a set of bulky papers with an affixed daguerreotype. They’d switched to this badge in the past year — with an alchemical photograph melded to the metal. Blowing her cover hadn’t been her first plan. But watching the brashness drain from Gamal’s face was worth it.

“You’re with the Ministry?” Saeed croaked.

“Pretty hard to get one of these otherwise,” she replied.

“It’s a trick,” Gamal stammered. “There aren’t women in the Ministry.”

Khalid sighed. “You two should read the papers more.”

Gamal shook his head. “I don’t believe it. You’re not — ”

“Khallas!” Fatma hissed, leaning forward. “It’s over! Here’s what you need to know. There are four other agents in this room. See the man at the door?” She didn’t bother to turn as the two peered over her shoulder. “There’s another talking everyone’s ear off at a table to your right. And a third, enjoying his hookah and watching a game of tawla on your left. The fourth, I won’t even tell you where he is.”

Their heads swiveled about like meerkats. Saeed visibly trembled.

“So here’s what happens now. You hand over that bottle. I give you half of what we agreed on — for making this difficult. And I won’t haul you in for questioning. We have a deal?”

Saeed nodded so quickly, his ears flapped. Gamal, was another matter: shaken, but not broken. His eyes darted from her to the badge to the satchel and back. When his jaws tightened, she cursed inwardly. Not a good sign.

In an explosion of movement the kid flipped the table over. Khalid went sprawling, his chair tipped out from under him. Fatma caught herself before falling, stumbling back. Gamal stood with the bottle in one hand and a small knife in the other. So much for not making a scene.

“Now I make the deals! Let us out of here! Or I break this seal and see what happens!”

“Gamal!” Saeed protested. “We can just go! We don’t have — ”

“Don’t be stupid! She’s not going to let us go! They’ll take us in and our families will never hear from us again! Experiment on us! Or feed us to ghuls!”

Fatma frowned. People had very strange ideas about what went on at the Ministry. “You don’t know what you’re doing. And you’re not leaving here. Not with that. Now hand it over. Last time I’m going to ask.”

Something on Gamal’s face snapped. Snarling through clenched teeth, he drew the blade across the wax seal that broke and fell away.

There was a moment of stillness. The entire ahwa had turned to stare at the commotion. But their eyes were no longer on the small woman in a white Westerner suit, the big man they knew to be a local bookie picking himself up off the floor, or the two young men standing behind an overturned table.

Instead, they stared open-mouthed at what one of the young men held — an old antique bottle pouring out bright green smoke. Like enchanted maassel, but in greater amounts. It formed something that looked more solid than any illusion. When the vapour vanished, a living, breathing giant was left in its wake: with skin covered in emerald scales and a head crowned by smooth ivory horns that curved up to brush the ceiling. He wore nothing but billowy white trousers held up by a broad gold belt. His massive chest swelled and retracted as he took deep breaths, before opening his three eyes — each burning like small, bright stars.

Even in the world left behind by al-Jahiz, it wasn’t every day you saw a Marid djinn simply . . . appear. The exact scenario Fatma had tried so hard to prevent was now playing out right before her. She allowed a momentary wave of panic, before finding her resolve again.

Excerpt from P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn reprinted by permission. Copyright Tor.com.

P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn will be out May 11, 2021; you can pre-order a copy here.