The Black God's Drums
by P. Djèlí Clark
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Another novella from tor.com, P. Djèlí Clark's The Black God's Drums is exciting, action packed, and emotionally charged, an alt-history/steampunk tale of clashing cultures in a transformed New Orleans in the latter half of the 19th Century. Variations from our world include the fact that NOLA is an independent free state, home to many former slaves, and the war between the Confederacy and the United States lasted longer (about eight years), with those two foes at an impasse after a decades long cease-fire. Oh, and there's magic. It's possible we'll find out just how varied the magic is in future stories, but for now it is focused on several orisha, brought to these shores by those who worship them, slaves from the Afrikin (spelled that way by the narrator) diaspora.
The first person narrator is Creeper, real name Jacqueline, and I'm pretty sure a last name was never mentioned. The nickname comes from her stealthy ability for climbing, like a creeping vine. She's thirteen, an orphan, squatting atop one of Les Grand Murs (the big walls), built by Dutch engineers to shield the city from storm surges, doubling as mooring stations for airships carrying freight and passengers. Oya, the goddess of the winds, watches over Creeper, occasionally sending her prophetic visions. One evening Creeper is alarmed to see a giant moon rise over Big Miss, but no normal moon, it is in the shape of a skull, with dark eyes and a demonic grin. The vision fades, but before she can begin puzzling out what it might mean, she has to hide in her alcove when several men approach. She recognizes most as Confederate soldiers, with another a Cajun by his accent. They talk of a Haitian scientist coming on an airship the next day, that they will offer him a 'jewel' in exchange for his invention. The Cajun knows what they are talking about, the Black God's Drums, which Creeper believes she knows by another name, Shango's Thunder.
Shango is the god of thunder, consort to Oya. Creeper is a petty thief, stealing small cargo in transport off Les Grand Murs, picking the pockets of wealthy passengers. She also knows two women she uses for information pertaining to incoming vessels, and the general goings-on around the city. From them she learns the privateer vessel Midnight Robber will dock in two days time. She knows the captain of that ship will be the perfect person to help her thwart the Confederates' plan. Ann-Marie St. Augustine is a smuggler, plying the Caribbean in her airship out of her home base, Port-au-Prince. Creeper had heard the stories of how the Haitian revolutionists had used Shango's Thunder against the French fleet, knows that once it was released it didn't stop with destroying the French ships and drowning those sailors. There was a backlash of effect that pounded Haiti with tsunamis and torrential rains, killing thousands. Both of them know that weapon must never be used again, by anyone, no matter their national affiliation or political motivation, and most definitely not the Confederates, who still maintain slavery within their borders.
Enough of the plot. My only criticism would be the brevity, just slightly more than a 100 pages. But there is still a lot of action and exposition within that frame, with remarkable characters who learn to work together quickly even though they previously had been closed off and wary of outside influence. Creeper is initially baffled as to why Ann-Marie disregards her spiritual guide, Oshun, goddess of waters, sister to Oya. Ann-Marie says she never receives visions like Oya sends to Creeper, but Creeper thinks it is only because she refuses to listen to what Oshun has to say. That changes when they have to work together when a group rival to the Confederates steal the weapon and set it off. The wind from Oya, combined with the waters from Oshun, are able to mitigate the damage done by the thunder of Shango. Creeper had been angling to be allowed to crew with Ann-Marie, but the captain maintains she's too young, and needs a more stable home, plus education, before she's ready for that. I really hope Clark follows this with more of Creeper's story, because I won't be able to stop thinking about what Creeper might learn under the tutelage of two of the strangest nuns I've ever read about, plus the exciting adventures that are bound to happen once Ann-Marie relents and lets her board her ship. No word yet on a sequel, his next story due is set in an alternate Cairo, so it may be tied to an earlier short story, "A Dead Djinn in Cairo," which I need to track down to read first. P. Djèlí Clark is most definitely on my radar now.
UPDATE: Now a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award.
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