Book Review: “The Black God’s Drums” by P. Djèlí Clark

After devouring The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (read my review here), I was ravenous for more of Clark’s work. The Black God’s Drums, also a novella and a finalist for the 2018 Nebula award, was Clark’s 2018 debut, and I found it equally enchanting.

Our story takes place in a steampunk fantasy version of the 1880s. America has been broken in half by its civil war, which ended at a truce between the Union and the Confederacy. Slavery lives on in the South, except in the neutral city-state of New Orleans.

The novella is told in the first person through the eyes of Creeper, a thirteen year old street urchin who dreams of leaving New Orleans via airship. Creeper also shares her body with Oya, an African Orisha. Creeper’s voice is incredibly distinct, blending colloquial English with Creole French. Here is a sample:

Les Grand Murs were built by Dutchmen to protect against the storms that come every year. Not the regular hurricanes neither, but them tempêtes noires that turn the skies into night for a whole week. I was born in one of the big ones some thirteen years back in 1871. The walls held in the Big Miss but the rain and winds almost drowned the city anyway, filling it up like a bowl. Ma maman pushed me out her belly in that storm, clinging to a big sweet gum tree in the middle of thunder and lightning. She said I was Oya’s child—the goddess of storms, life, death, and rebirth, who came over with her great-grandmaman from Lafrik, and who runs strong in our blood. Ma maman said that’s why I take to high places so, looking to ride Oya’s wind.

The plot is simple: Creeper discovers that a terrible weapon has fallen into the wrong hands, and that these people are planning to use the weapon to destroy New Orleans (and possibly the rest of the free world). What follows is Creeper and Co.’s attempt to stop this terrible weapon from wreaking death and destruction across the city. Do they succeed? Take a guess.

The shortness of a novella stops the plot from dragging. What drew me into the story, however, were the characters. Creeper is canny and quick, and made even more interesting through sharing her body and mind with Oya. Ann-Marie is an openly bisexual airship captain with a pistol and a mechanical leg — what’s not to love about that? There is a feral swamp-child and a pair of nuns who are cleverer than the rest of the characters combined, as well as a villain who capers and prances about like a Creole version of Stephen King’s Randall Flagg.

Overall, The Black God’s Drums makes up for a simplistic plot with memorable characters and plenty of action. I found the story entertaining and had trouble putting it down, even though there was only one twist that truly surprised me (and it was a twist that I should have seen coming). I think this is a fantastic debut from a talented author, and I hope Clark returns to New Orleans and tells us more about the adventures of Creeper and Ann-Marie.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Read another review (this one with spoilers) of The Black God’s Drums by Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay

Read an excerpt of The Black God’s Drums for free on Tor.com

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