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

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018

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!)

Book Review: Bald Knobber by Robert Sergel (2018)

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

Not so much about the Bald Knobbers as a struggling middle-schooler.

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

Named for the bald knob summit on which the group formed, the Bald Knobbers was a vigilante group that operated in the Ozarks in the wake of the Civil War. Being a border state, Missouri “was hard hit by neighbor against neighbor bushwhacker fighting.” (h/t to wikipedia for this paragraph.) After the war’s end, the violence continued, with law enforcement either powerless to – or disinterested in – stopping it. The Bald Knobbers – largely Republicans who sided with the Union Army – ostensibly formed to bring marauding gangs to justice. This led to the birth of opposition groups, the rather uncreatively named anti-Bald Knobbers. The original Taney County chapter was ultimately forced to disband when the Missouri Governor became involved due to escalating violence.

Sergel uses this chapter in history – presented in the form of a book report given by our middle-school protagonist Cole – as a backdrop for Cole’s own personal problems. His divorced parents loathe one another, and have no qualms about fighting – and fighting dirty – in front of their only child. Cole is the target of a local bully named Sam and, when he fights back, he finds that the relief is only temporary. Everything comes to a head in a shocking twist that could either be an act of unspeakable cruelty … or a tragic accident.

Honestly, I was hoping to learn more about the Bald Knobbers than we actually do. The parallels that Cole finds between their lives and his feel superficial and a bit contrived – especially since the book mostly ignores the group’s enforcement of religious mores, of which there is nothing heroic. (There is a mention of whipping “drunkards and loose women,” a term the teacher scolds Cole for using, but that’s about it.) Curiously, there’s also no mention of slavery, Reconstruction, or the Bald Knobbers’ political alliances. I am not fond of Civil War discussions that don’t include the words “slavery” the bare minimum of once.

Cole also comes to the conclusion that violence is never the solution; rather, violence always begets more violence. This, um, in a book at least tangentially about the Civil War. Tell me, were we going to work that one out with politely worded missives and caramel-loaded candy-grams?

Otherwise, the art is nice to look at; the black and white color scheme feels clean and simple, and helps to underscore the book’s tone. I just wish the story had shown more depth and nuance.

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

Book Review: Images of Civil War Medicine: A Photographic History, Gordon Dammann (2007)

Thursday, January 3rd, 2008

90% Civil War Portraits, 10% Medical Photography

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

Though IMAGES OF CIVIL WAR MEDICINE: A PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORY sounds as though it should be packed with images of, well, Civil War medicine, it’s surprisingly light on photographs of medical procedures, instruments, disorders, and injuries. Instead, a majority of the photos are of people (soldiers, doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel) and places (make-shift hospitals, encampments, and battlefields), resulting in a less gruesome – and interesting – volume than the title would lead you to expect.

In IMAGES OF CIVIL WAR MEDICINE, authors and Civil War buffs Gordon Dammann and Alfred Jay Bollett give a brief overview of the state of medicine during the American Civil War. The written word takes a backseat to the myriad Civil War-era photos, particularly of medical staff and volunteers. Indeed, those interested in the history of photography, and Civil War photography in particular, will mostly likely find this to be an invaluable resource.

However, I am neither. I had hoped to learn more about this history of specific medical procedures, but was disappointed to find that a majority of the photos do not involve the actual practice of medicine, but rather are of medical practitioners. In fact, only one chapter (“Wounds and Diseases”) deals with Civil War medicine – and it’s the last chapter, at that! The other seven chapters leading up to “Wounds and Diseases” mostly deal with people and places – medical educators, nurses and volunteers, the US Sanitary Commission, dentists, morticians, ambulances, field hospitals, etc. While I found the topics somewhat interesting, the coverage was superficial. In particular, I thought the chapter on nursing was fascinating, but the subject was only given passing attention. This is understandable for a book that deals primarily with images; however, since I wasn’t impressed with the variety of photos, I found myself relying on the text more than I might otherwise.

Overall, I give IMAGES OF CIVIL WAR MEDICINE three stars. The volume contains an impressive number of Civil War photos, as promised; unfortunately, the variety of subjects in these photographs is lacking.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)