It starts well enough; the story is engaging and intriguing. But it goes off the rails in the second half. I get the distinct impression that the author knows a tiny bit about the djinn, who figure prominently in the tale, and much more about tasawwuf (Sufism); specifically, I suspect, the Nimatullahi order. Although the description of the initiation doesn't mention the nutmeg or bolt of cloth used in that order, the other details strongly suggest it. That aside, the author seems ignorant of what Sufis teach about the subject matter: about the djinn and King Solomon ('alayhis salaam) and much else, although the Qur'an is quoted throughout the book. The author relies heavily on Jewish lore in places; but despite the fact that Jewish tradition recognizes several types of beings which we would call djinn, his djinn lore is limited to what little he has gleaned from Islamic tradition. He makes full use of neither tradition's rich stock of teachings on djinn and djinn-like beings. It's a mishmash. To mention some not so minor points, we regard Solomon (as) as a prophet, who was free from sin. The Prophet Muhammad (sawa), as well as the Qur'an, were sent to the djinn as well as to mankind, which is clearly mentioned in the Qur'an itself. We don't believe that all djinn rebelled with Iblis, or that any of the angels rebelled at all. In the book, however, it appears that all of the djinn (and some of the angels) rebelled after the creation, Solomon (as) gave the djinn a message of salvation but somehow mucked things up, and from that time to the present day--in which the story is set--they had received no other message from any other messenger, and that most of the djinn were therefore despairing of God's (swt) mercy. I cannot say more about that for fear of spoiling. Although among Sufis it is well known that there were several prophets after Solomon (as) including Jesus (as) and Muhammad (sawa), and many among the djinn heeded those prophets ('alayhimis salaam), the story ignores this completely. It also ignores Islamic cosmography, relying on Jewish traditions for this. The story is neither fish nor fowl. If the author is going to use Sufism as a background, he could have made use of what Sufis actually believe: but neither Jesus (as) nor Muhammad (sawa) are mentioned anywhere. If the author is going to make use of the Jewish tradition, he could have made better use of the lore available in those sources. If he wanted to use both, it would have been easy to make a coherent synthesis, since there are many points of convergence between the two traditions. Instead it's like he used part of a beef stew recipe and part of a fried chicken recipe and part of a broiled trout recipe without knowing the details of any of them: he sticks a chicken leg into a pot of beef stew and throws a whole trout in for good measure, ensuring that it's not palatable for anyone who has more than a smattering of knowledge about the subject matter. It really began well; none of these flaws are apparent in the first half. But in the second half they start piling up until by the end I was as glad that the book finally ended as I was that the story reached its resolution. As a member of a Sufi tariqa myself, I'm as keen as anyone to see books and films featuring tasawwuf in an understanding and sympathetic fashion; but if a work is going to try to delve into the depths it requires more than surface knowledge.
This novel starts by presenting a linked stories, like a set of Russian nesting dolls, until finally settling on an adventure yarn that occupies the rest of the novel. In tone, it reminds me of Tibetan Tale of Love and Magic by Alexandra David-Neel.
Other readers have compared Master of the Jinn to the DaVinci Code for its loose relationship to religioustenets(Sufism,in this case). Epigraphs and other quotations from Sufi mystics and philosophers are used throughout and may offer a deeper layer of meaning. Even so, fiction gives the author poetic license to deviate from strict interpretation of religious screed and creatively embroider, for that is the point of writing imaginatively. Otherwise the tale might be portrayed as an ethonographic folk tale. The same is true of Alexandra David-Neel’s account of the Bon monks. In other books, she writes of her travels in Tibet but in that tome she takes readers on an imaginative journey, as Karchmar does here.
I found the beginning of Master of the Jinn slow. Back-stories are lures to the main tale. Even once embarked on the main journey,there are side-alleys, like the maze of streets in a Casbah, each full of its own secrets. Soon I eagerly followed the soulful Sufi group on their mission to the land the jinn and their deliverance from it.
The story is more plot-driven than character-driven. When I closed the book, I was glad for the resolution of the quest; I did not feel I was reluctantly leaving a group of friends as I turned the last page.
Descriptions of the region and customs seem realistic. Initially, I was disconcerted because I could not tell in what era the storyoccurring. Use of Jeep later indicates the main action is contemporary. But the language of Ishaq the scribe uses anachronistic constructions as “verily.”
The novel works on a number of levels -- as a sociological description of a Sufi group, a region, and culture; as a partial depiction of religious lore that spans a few faiths; an adventure tale; the polished entertaining presentation of a scholar and creative writer, and as a set of teachings. I myself had an unexpected epiphany after reading one section of the story.
Disclosure: Irving Karchmar has been a Facebook friend for some time. Initially, I returned a free copy because I was stalled in the early part of the book. One evening I wanted to read something representative of his calmness, so that was when I started this book. I was not disappoined.