Book Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (2018)

November 27th, 2018 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

This is the alt history Confederacy story you’re looking for.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for racism.)

The magic of those old Afrikin gods is part of this city, ma maman used to say, buried in its bones and roots with the slaves that built it, making the ground and air and waterways sacred land. Only we forgot the names that went with that power we brought over here. Since Haiti got free, though, those gods were coming back, she’d said, across the waters, all the way from Lafrik. Now here’s two of them in a bordello in New Orleans. Who knows what that means.

The year is 1884, and the Union is still divided. In this alternate steampunk version of American history, the Union and Confederacy called a truce after eight years of war, in the Armistice of Third Antietam. Any states not already a part of the Union were abandoned, its enslaved citizens left to perish in bondage. As if the reality of slavery wasn’t (isn’t) horrific enough, Clark throws in an especially chilling detail, reminiscent of the Sunken Place: slave owners dose their human chattel with a drug called drapeto vapor, which zombifies them into compliance.

I’ve seen the tintype photographs from inside the Confederacy. Shadowy pictures of fields and factories filled with laboring dark bodies, their faces almost all covered up in big black gas masks, breathing in that drapeto vapor. It make it so the slaves don’t want to fight no more, don’t want to do much of nothing. Just work. Thinking about their faces, so blank and empty, makes me go cold inside.

Against this backdrop we meet a plucky AF heroine, thirteen-year-old Creeper (given name Jacqueline). Orphaned three years prior when her mother died of yellow fever, Creeper lives in the nooks and crannies of Les Grand Murs, the Great Wall that surrounds free New Orleans, protecting it from the superstorms that plague the coast – ever since the Haitians let loose a supernatural weapon called The Black God’s Drums in order to drive Napoleon and the French from their country.

While hiding in her alcove, scoping out some potential marks, Creeper overhears a plot to deliver a Haitian scientist to the Confederacy. Supposedly this Dr. Duval has found a way to recreate The Black God’s Drums, thus unleashing the power of the Gods here on earth once again. With such a powerful weapon in their hands, the Confederacy could actually win the war. Now it’s up to a tween pickpocket, an airship captain named Ann-Marie St. Augustine (previously her mother’s paramour), a pair of renegade nuns, and a feral child descended from plantation owners to foil the plot and save the day.

And oh, let’s not forget the two sister-wife goddesses (or pieces of goddesses, rather) that have attached themselves to Creeper and Ann-Marie.

The Black God’s Drums is amazing, and my only complaint is that we don’t get to spend more time in the spectacularly captivating world Clark has created here. While Creeper shines (I’m a sucker for girls disguised as boys), every single character is multi-dimensional and engaging. I really love the interplay between Creeper and Ann-Marie – and their goddesses, Oya and Oshun. The relationship between Ann-Marie and Rose adds another layer to an already complex situation. And Sisters Agnès and Eunice are all kinds of awesome.

Clark paints a colorful and vibrant picture of 1884 New Orleans, from the mixed-race and gay-friendly bordello Shá Rouj to the crumbling plantations claimed by the swamps. The alternate history is fascinating, though it’s frustrating that we don’t learn more about the circumstances leading up to (and fallout of) the treaty; I really, really hope that The Black God’s Drums won’t be the only glimpse we get into this ‘verse. The titular Black God’s Drums, particularly how Clark weaves it into Haitian history, is just the icing on the cake.

I need more. Maybe a twenty-something Jacqueline, now a college graduate and bonafide member of the Midnight Robber, helping Ann-Marie and the rest of the crew to take down the Confederacy for good? Bonus points if guerilla fighter Harriet Tubman makes a cameo. Not to typecast her, but Aisha Hinds has to play Tubman in the film version. (She’s just too perfect, once you see the monologue episode of Underground you won’t ever be able to picture anyone else as Minty.)

And yes, this needs to be a movie like yesterday. Get on this, Hollywood.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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