Liz Bourke Reviews The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

The Black God’s Drums, P. Djèlí Clark ( Publishing 978-1250294715, $11.99, 112pp, tp) August 2018.

The Black God’s Drums does leave me feeling very enthusiastic. This delight­ful novella is a breath of fresh air, and promises good things for P. Djèlí Clark’s career – though I should note that he already has no mean track record in shorter fiction.

The Black God’s Drums sets itself in a steampunk-esque alternate history of the later 19th century, but one that boasts several significant changes from most alternate histories of the 19th century. In this world, the revolution in Haiti – in reality one of the world’s most successful slave rebellions – was even more successful, leading to the creation of a state known as the Free Isles in the Caribbean region. The traditional great powers backed off on interfering due to the Free Isles’ possession of a great and terrible weapon, whose deployment permanently changed the weather patterns in the Gulf of Mexico, and con­tinental North America’s Civil War never ended, the Union and the Confederacy continuing a war that’s exhausted both sides.

In the middle lies the free city of New Orleans, where The Black God’s Drums sets its action. New Orleans is neutral territory. Les Grands Murs protect it from the giant storms in the Gulf, and its usefulness to all parties protects it from military violence.

Street kid Creeper has been living on her own for years, hiding out in nooks in Les Grands Murs. She’s a pickpocket and a thief, and also dogged by a goddess: Oya, who hums in her ear, occasionally sends her visions, and even more occasionally lends Creeper a touch of her power. But Creeper wants to see the world. When one night she overhears a group of Confederate soldiers talk­ing to a Cajun smuggler about a Haitian scientist, bargaining to get their hands on him and his inven­tion – “the Black God’s Drums” – in exchange for giving the scientist “his jewel,” she sees an op­portunity. She knows of a Haitian smuggler who’d be interested in this news: Captain Ann-Marie of the airship Midnight Robber.

Creeper’s plans to convince Captain Ann-Marie to take her on as a member of the crew are derailed by the Haitian scientist’s kidnapping and the danger posed by the Black God’s Drums. It will be up to Creeper and to Captain Ann-Marie – with a little help from the orishas – to save New Orleans. And with it, maybe even the world. The only problem is that Ann-Marie doesn’t exactly want to cooperate with a goddess….

Renegade scientists, feral girls, nuns whose knowledge is just this side of disturbing: Djèlí Clark creates a setting that feels vivid and alive, and populates it with interesting, complicated characters – even if we only really meet Creeper and Ann-Marie up close. (Creeper’s mother was a prostitute, and Ann-Marie was one of her clients before her death: Creeper first meets Ann-Marie in the brothel where her mother worked, and where the madam tries to persuade Creeper to get an education and wear proper clothes.) Creeper’s voice is that of a gamine raconteur, lively and accented with New Orleans French, a compelling first-person perspective on an atmospheric city.

The Black God’s Drums is, in short, a delight. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’ll definitely be looking up P. Djèlí Clark’s other work.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

This review and more like it in the August 2018 issue of Locus.

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