The Black God’s Drums
P. Djèlí Clark (writer)
August 21, 2018
When I read the description “Steampunk New Orleans with Orisha” I was immediately drawn in. P. Djèlí Clark’s novella The Black God’s Drums, was not at all what I expected when I picked up this book. Set in an alternate steampunk reality, where the American Civil War ended with an armistice, New Orleans is a neutral city and free for African-American people. There, we meet Creeper, a young Black girl living in the airship station picking pockets to get by. We find out that Creeper has a goddess residing within her, Oya the Orisha, goddess of storms and wind. Oya grants Creeper with a vision of the destruction of her beloved city by a fearsome weapon called the Black God’s Drums that would wipe the free town right off the map. It’s up to Creeper, a.k.a Jacqueline, and the Captain of the airship The Midnight Robber to save the day.
All of that sounds like an amazing ride, and it is. I found the character of Creeper to be well rounded; Creeper is curious, smart, and is all about getting whatever task that’s put in front of her done. The way Clark writes women is refreshing—there isn’t a moment where we view these women through the lens of a man. They feel whole and they are their own people with their own personal issues that need working out. Honestly, in stories like this where women hold positions of power much like Captain Anne-Marie, the female character often has to prove herself worthy of that title. But not here. Anne-Marie is undoubtedly a worthy captain and there isn’t a moment in this story where her leadership is questioned.
Clark, whose family hails from Trinidad and Tobago, did an excellent job enriching this novella with the history of the Orisha. Their powers and their personalities shine through in beautiful ways. For example, when Oya, a mischievous god wants to have Creeper join her dancing in the wind. Now, if that causes chaos or destruction …well that’s Creeper’s problem. I like that Creeper’s inner voice is a whole other entity because it’s a unique way to give insight not only to Creeper but also Oya. We meet other gods in The Black Gods Drums via flashbacks from Oya or in different and surprising ways (no spoilers here). Clark infuses a layer of whimsy and mysticism in a world that is full of fantastical elements and these gods are the icing on that pretty, wonderful cake.
The Black God’s Drums is a novella that is jam-packed with action; it hops into the conflict right in the beginning. If I were to criticize anything, it would be that. I wanted a bit more time to get to know Creeper and her life, her New Orleans, and the world itself. The beginning felt rushed, leaving me to try and build the alternate New Orleans on my own. The use of patois as Creepers dialect helped emerge me in the tale, just hearing that southern accent help to create a vibe I felt missing. I wanted more because the story is only 100 pages and it felt like Creeper and Captain Anne-Marie were handed deus ex machina around every corner, which made their search appear to be a set of errands, instead of a hunt for the truth. There was no real build up to the climax; it just happened and then it was over. I feel like with more time and pages Clark could adapt this incredible story into a brilliant novel.
P. Djèlí Clark’s novella The Black God’s Drums is a great short dive into a whimsical and exciting world, one I would love to see more of. If you like fantasy and well-rounded characters this story is for you. Black God’s Drums is a female-led, action-packed, novella filled to the brim with gods, weapons of mass destruction, all set in a steampunk New Orleans. And after reading Clark’s remarkable tale you’ll be lefting wanting more too.