Fiction, Reviews

The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

Pictured: The book cover on a smartphone screen, in front of a dark background.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“It’s not always easy,” I admit. The one thing Oya definitely isn’t is easy. “The goddess can be fickle. Most times she got her own mind, pulling me one way while I’m trying to go another. We don’t always see eye to eye. But not having her with me would be…” I search for the right words. “I would feel alone.”

**There are minor spoilers in the “Content Warnings” and “Review” portions of this post.**

Published: August 2018
Genre: Alternate Universe, Historical Fiction, Urban Fantasy, Science Fiction
Representation: Black People of Colour (BPOC), Bisexual (LGBT+), Neurodivergent, Homelessness
Content Warning: Gun violence, knife violence, mass death, visual hallucinations, discussions of slavery, drowning, homelessness/poverty, being drugged, parental death, racism, physical violence, death, murder, torture, themes of war, being tied up

Summary

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 concerning Creeper and Ann-Marie…

— summary taken from Goodreads.

Review

We’ve said this before, and we’ll say it again: P. Djèlí Clark is a master in writing short stories and alternate universes. It was true with The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (check out our review for that one here), and it’s true with The Black God’s Drums. As with his other books, the world-building in this one is what hooks you into the story. Clark weaves together a science-fiction/fantasy world set in an alternate New Orleans, with an infusion of powerful African and Caribbean deities which adds a beautiful fantastical element, underlined by strong female characters. This is a wonderfully diverse novella starring mostly Black characters (and a few other POC) of varying backgrounds in the neutral political grounds of New Orleans following the self-liberation of slaves.

The protagonist, who refers to herself as Creeper, is a young, homeless thief living on the streets of New Orleans fending for herself, and blessed with the presence of a African goddess who cohabitates part of her mind:

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.

– Creeper; “The Black God’s Drums” by P. Djèlí Clark

Oya speaks to Creeper, and lends her power. Creeper is often influenced by Oya’s emotions and whims, and Oya gives her visions as a means of warning and protecting her (while probably also messing with her, truthfully). Creeper is already a unique character in herself, considering her experiences and how they lend to her character. She is snarky, self-assured, and sneaky; unafraid to take up space and do what she needs to to survive. Despite being a young girl living in homelessness, she is unafraid of her circumstances and environment, and thrives in the nooks and crannies of New Orleans. It is incredible to see the city and the world overall through her eyes, especially since New Orleans is all she knows, though she dreams of seeing the wider world.

In terms of the story itself, it has its edge-of-your-seat action-packed moments, filled with intrigue and suspense, and a fair share of disturbing elements in the form of elitism, colonialism, and terrible tools used to try and subdue slaves. The strong world-building and quirky, loveable characters help you feel very committed to the story and the world. Creeper, and her new ally who is also touched by an orisha set themselves on a mission to stop Confederates from getting their grimy hands on a horrifying doomsday weapon.

Sounds interesting so far? Check out more of our colourful cast: a badass swashbuckling bisexual ship captain with one leg and a quirky crew, morally questionable nuns who run an underground information ring and possess very dangerous weapons, a “feral” young girl who is not very communicative after being abandoned and left to survive on her own in a swamp, and a charming yet extremely unnerving villain. All of the characters in this novella are so wonderfully vivid, which is a testament to Clark’s skill as a writer, given how little page time he has to highlight them all. Not only that, but the various settings within New Orleans, and the powers of the orisha-touched characters are so vividly portrayed, which is perfect for conjuring up a mental picture of the world that Clark creates.

I am Oya now. My burgundy dress flows about me as I dance, a machete over my head, in the middle of the whirlwind. I bend those winds to me, making them surrender to my control. I reach up to pluck away bright cords of lightning from the heavens, shaping them in my palm until they’re just sparkling bits of fireflies. I plunge fingers into dark clouds, swirling them from within until they’re untroubled, and a heavy rain turns into a light shower. I laugh as I go about my work. And beside me, my sister Oshun shines.

– Creeper; “The Black God’s Drums” by P. Djèlí Clark

We will concede that dialect writing may not be for everyone: it took us a minute to become adjusted to the writing style and choice of storytelling. There are multiple accents and dialects that come into play within this novella due to the nature of New Orleans as a neutral ground between warring states. The use of dialect writing doesn’t detract from the narrative itself; if anything, it adds to the diversity and aesthetic of the story. 

It is also worth noting that we don’t tend to read books by male authors, owing to how poorly we find women are usually written (if they’re written in at all), and the lack of diversity that seems to be an unfortunate characteristic in these books. P. Djèlí Clark is a notable exception to this: reading fully-formed female characters who are people, and not just sexual objects or accessories is so exciting from a male writer. We want more! More from the worlds Clark has already built, but really more from Clark himself! He is definitely on our authors-to-watch list.

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