the black god's drums

I’ve been meaning to read P. Djèlí Clark's novella The Black God's Drums for a long time. I’m proud to say I finally finished it (and that the long wait had nothing to do with the book itself, which was fast-paced, satisfying, and a romp and a half!). A couple of years ago I borrowed this novella from the library and racked up a $13 late fee – before returning it unread. *sigh* And then I bought a hardcover copy sometime in the past year… but teaching (and grading!) burned through all of my personal reading time. And THEN I finally bought a digital copy as well – to read whenever. And whenever happened to be over the last few days, sitting with my Kindle in the sunshine at my uncles’ place. It was extremely satisfying to check this one off my to-read list!

the black god's drums by p. djèlí clark book cover
Creeper, a scrappy young teen, is done living on the streets of New Orleans. Instead, she wants to soar, and her sights are set on securing passage aboard the smuggler airship 
Midnight Robber. Her ticket: earning Captain Ann-Marie’s trust using a secret about a kidnapped Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls the Black God’s Drums.

But Creeper keeps another secret close to heart—Oya, the African orisha of the wind and storms, who speaks inside her head and grants her divine powers. And Oya has her own priorities…

Young orphan Creeper sleeps rough and knows the ins and outs of a steampunk version of New Orleans from her life as a pickpocket. Her dreams are bigger than the streets she loves, though – she wants to get away, to join an airship crew and fly the world. When she stumbles upon valuable information about a weapon of mass destruction called the Black God’s Drums, she thinks that selling it to the right source may be her ticket out of town on a Haitian pirate airship. The goddess Oya, who haunts Creeper’s thoughts with visions, may have a different plan – and so the intrigue and adventure begin.

The Black God’s Drums is primarily young Creeper’s story, but it is firmly moored in an alternate history and place: a steampunk version of New Orleans full of airships and mechanical marvels, where the North and South signed a treaty to end a much longer Civil War and Free New Orleans rebelled and lives in its own bubble. In this version of reality, Creeper is on her own and a master at avoiding the risk and danger of her world, and at the same time trying to escape to live in the skies. She’s dropped into intrigue by accident (is it really an accident or Oya’s will?), and thus follows an adventure that crisscrosses New Orleans and brings her up against sinister enemies.

One of the story’s great strengths is the crazy steampunk and cultural mashup in its pages (and that’s also one of the possible weaknesses, if you can’t untangle the threads). It’s speculative fiction, which you always take a bit on faith, but it imagines a mostly hopeful past: one where Haiti thrived and prospered after its slave uprising and revolution (even at terrible cost), the rest of the Caribbean followed it to freedom, and Free New Orleans is a diverse melting pot full of a Blacks, Creoles, and more. Also there are airships! And unlikely information gatherers, and queer characters, and a rollicking pace that catapult the reader through adventures one after another.

The one thing I wish we got more of in the story is MORE of the story – I’d love to see this become a series like the Murderbot novellas by Martha Wells did. Clark has woven a history and a cultural milieu that are rich with detail, and characters you want to know more about. I think there’s more to Creeper’s story, and I’d love to read it.

In all, The Black God’s Drums is an inventive, electric steampunk short story filled with Haitian airship privateers, the unique flavor of New Orleans, and a young heroine who will steal into your heart.

Recommended for: those looking to read more fiction by Black authors, fans of short stories and YA steampunk/alternate histories (e.g. Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series), and anyone on the hunt for a fast-paced read.

1 comment:

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

This sounds VERY cool -- I've only read maybe one other steampunk book by a Black author? but I love the genre. Plus, New Orleans! Can't wait to read this!

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