The Black God’s Drums: We really hope this begins a series

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

In an alternative history, magical steampunk version of New Orleans, in 1884 the city is still influenced by the aftermath of the Civil War, which ended in a division of the Union and Confederate states. New Orleans is a pocket of neutrality, one of the few territories not aligned with either the North or South. The city is run by a council made up of ex-slaves, mulattoes and white businesspeople; British, French and Haitian airships patrol the skies to keep the peace.

Thirteen-year old-Jacqueline is a bright, quick street girl and pickpocket who goes by the name of Creeper (for her skill at climbing walls). Within Creeper lives part of the spirit of Oya, the orisha or goddess of storms, life and death, lending Creeper power over wind and sharing premonitions and visions with her. And her latest vision is a doozy: an immense, horrific skull moon hanging over New Orleans, snuffing out the lights below. Not long after, Creeper accidentally overhears a plot that may endanger the entire city: a group of southern men is angling to get possession of “the Black God’s Drums” from a Haitian scientist visiting the city.

Creeper tries to barter the information to Ann-Marie St. Augustine, the tough-minded Trinidadian captain of the airship Midnight Robber, for a spot on her crew. The captain demurs ― she thinks Creeper is too young and needs some schooling ― but soon both are pulled into the chase to foil the plot that menaces all of New Orleans.

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsTadiana: The Black God’s Drums (2018), a Tor novella nominated for this year’s Nebula award, is richly imagined and uses every one of its 112 pages to good effect. P. Djèlí Clark put some serious thought into the alternative history of this world, with enticing tidbits about that post-Civil War history and the unique culture of New Orleans gradually shared with the reader. The magical system, with the orisha (gods of the Nigerian Yoruba people), is equally appealing and an intrinsic part of the plot. I completely bought into the idea of a portion of the goddess Oya living within Creeper, whispering to her, and manifesting her powers through her.

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsJana: I think Clark’s writing is imaginative and complex, and there’s a lot of story packed into such a small package. I hope he writes more stories set in this world, because there’s definitely room for expansion, and I want to get to know the characters better. And the dialects he incorporates into the dialogue help to make each character distinct, as well as creating a deep and rich sense of backgrounds and histories well beyond what Creeper has experienced.

I loved the unusual, colorful characters as well. The dialects used by many of the characters ― which include a number of French words spelled phonetically ― is sometimes a bit tough to sink into, but isn’t too hard to follow, and adds color to the story. Creeper, who narrates the story, is a precocious, stubborn 13-year-old orphan; she’s a type I’ve met before in literature, but she’s unusually well-drawn, although it’s difficult to buy the novella’s narration as really being that of an uneducated street child. Ann-Marie St. Augustine is more unique, a lesbian airship captain with one leg (she wears a complex prosthesis) who is strong both mentally and physically … and whose stubbornness is a match for Creeper’s. Two nuns with a taste for gossip and weapons almost steal the show in their brief appearance.

If I had any complaints, it would be that this is an excellent and well-contained single-shot story, but the supporting characters like the two nuns (Sister Agnès and Sister Eunice) who assist Creeper in various facets of her life really ought to be revisited in order to fully flesh them out and explore their various eccentricities.

The captain looks between the two women, her eyes narrowing. “Allyuh sure allyuh is nuns and not obeah women?” she asks.

 

Sister Agnès only smiles: a plump knowing angel. I say nothing. Like I said before about these sisters: They’re odd.

The only reason it’s not a full-on gripe from me is that I kept getting the sense that Creeper’s story is just getting started here, and I’m willing to be patient if I think something really good is coming down the pike.

Like Jana, I really hope I meet these characters again!

One particular aspect of The Black God’s Drums that I enjoyed was Clark’s commitment to creating an alternate history which feels thoroughly plausible. The levels of science and technology are fanciful but feel appropriate for the time period, the resolution to the American Civil War is depressingly awful-but-realistic (and yet there’s mention of General Tubman, which brought a smile to my face), and the idea of Caribbean — particularly Haitian — independence successfully wrested from European control made me cheer.

That offhand reference to Harriet Tubman and her life in this alternative history world was absolutely delightful!

I continue to be impressed by Clark’s skill at crafting near-perfect worlds in miniature form; his short stories and novellas have more thought and imagination poured into them than most doorstopper-novels I encounter. The Black God’s Drums is full of action, suspense and intrigue, a delightfully seductive alternate history, and characters who capture the reader’s heart. I completely understand why The Black God’s Drums is nominated for a Nebula, and I’m excited to read more of Clark’s fiction in the future.

Published in August 2018. Rising science fiction and fantasy star P. Djèlí Clark brings an alternate New Orleans of orisha, airships, and adventure to life in his immersive debut novella The Black God’s Drums. Alex Award Winner! In an alternate New Orleans caught in the tangle of the American Civil War, the wall-scaling girl named Creeper yearns to escape the streets for the air–in particular, by earning a spot on-board the airship Midnight Robber. Creeper plans to earn Captain Ann-Marie’s trust with information she discovers about a Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums. But Creeper also has a secret herself: Oya, the African orisha of the wind and storms, speaks inside her head, and may have her own ulterior motivations. Soon, Creeper, Oya, and the crew of the Midnight Robber are pulled into a perilous mission aimed to stop the Black God’s Drums from being unleashed and wiping out the entirety of New Orleans.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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4 comments

  1. This was one of my favorite books of 2018! I believe it’ll win BOTH the Nebula and the Hugo Awards!

    P.S. Am I allowed to link my reviews here?

  2. Another must-read! This sounds awesome.

  3. Kevin S. /

    Wow, this novella is extremely well written. I give it an easy 4.5 stars and I’m happy to round up to 5!!

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