Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

The Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

reviewed by jim hepplewhite


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I felt disappointed by The Black God's Drums.

The setting's great. A steampunk New Orleans preserves a tenuous truce between British, Confederate, French, and Union forces during an extended Civil War. New Orleans was already the first American port for African and Caribbean cultures in reality so, sprinkle a little steampunk fairy dust and voila! A setting that can sustain multiple stories AND gets Mr. Djèlí Clark a full Russian nesting doll of colonialism and spheres of influence.

The Black God's Drums is billed as a fun romp, but the setting seems criminally underutilized here. The novella suffers from either requiring a larger page count to play to the setting’s potential or outright squandering that potential. 

Here's the story: A street girl (Creeper) spots a Haitian scientist on the New Orleans docks and sells the information to a mysterious airship captain (Ann-Marie) in exchange for getting out of the city. Obviously, Ann-Marie and Creeper are swept into a dangerous conspiracy. Throw in that Creeper is a conduit for Ora, the African Orisha of wind and storms, and I'm in. This could be fun.

Could be.

"In the awkward quiet, the captain stands to slip back on her britches, then her remaining boot. 'I'm going to find my  crew,' she tells me finally. 'See if they think you talking true or just trying to sell mean big nancy-story. Wait here. I'll be back.'
She buttons her Free Isles jacket and walks to the door.
'What's your name?’ I call out quickly.
The captain turns to me, hesitant before deciding. 'Ann-Marie,' she answers. 'Ann-Marie St. Augustine.'
'I'm Creeper,' I reply. She pauses at that. Everyone does. But she nods.
I wait until she's gone. Then I disappear through the window into the night."

A deeper look into Black God's Drums (characters/locations are named after genuine historical figures, and not just General Tubman, drapeto gas is a nod to a quack doctor in the 1850s who argued implausibly that black people were deranged for wanting freedom) reveals Mr. Djèlí Clark put some serious research into the work, and in most if not all cases, the work is better for it.

But The Black God's Drums wilts under scrutiny.

The villains are the party closest to hand, and the group assembled to defeat them is so unimpeachably good, I might run them as my Dungeons and Dragons characters. 

Throughout the work, Mr. Djèlí Clark hammers home the idea that independent of the Civil War being tragic for the Union and Confederate soldiers, it was already tragic for every single human person already enslaved. It's a sobering reminder that the cost of slavery is always too high.

As moral stances go, that one's difficult to argue with.

This makes it surprising when Mr. Djèlí Clark writes the heroes committing a war crime and doesn't follow it up. Viewed charitably, this can be chalked up to temporarily beating him at his own game, to use the next sentence in the famous Audre Lorde quote.

Viewed uncharitably, are you fucking kidding? This and a bewildering message to Creeper at the end to stay in school (she's old enough to make her own decisions about deployment onto a battlefield saturated with chemical weapons but she's not old enough to drop out of school?) soured me on The Black God's Drums. Fun romp and strong moral center are compatible, but The Black God's Drums doesn't discover the mixture. 

I hope Tor.com commissions further novellas, because off the top of my head there's so much more Mr. Djèlí Clark could do with this setting. I want to believe the limited scope wasn't his choice. 

If the setting intrigues you, read on. Just don't inhale the drapeto gas.