Damn, P. Djèlí Clark is quickly becoming one of my favourite writers. I was introduced to his fiction through the short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo and knew that if his other stuff was that good then I had a new auto-buy author. THE BLACK GOD’S DRUMS was even better than Dead Djinn. Possibly because, while still a short book (a novella clocking in at 112 pages) there was more room for character to blossom and the world of his late 19th century alt-New Orleans to come alive. And what a world it is. Haitian sky pirates! A street urchin harnessing the power of a storm god! Nuns with gas grenades! All that stuff is packed into this short, punchy book with so much skill and crisp succinctness I was left gasping for breath by the end.
But hold up, hold up, I’m getting ahead of myself. What’s the story even about? Well there’s no messing about and not a word wasted; we’re thrown straight into the story when Creeper, our streetwise pickpocket protagonist overhears a conversation about a kidnapped Haitian scientist and a powerful weapon he calls ‘The Black God’s Drums’. Sick of her grounded life on the streets of New Orleans, Creeper plans to sell this information to the captain of the smuggler airship Midnight Robber in return for passage and a new life soaring the skies of the Eastern Seaboard and Caribbean Free Islands. She’s consequently thrown into a conflict she never saw coming, involving a bawdy multicultural brothel, aforementioned politically-astute nuns with gas grenades and a splinter group of Confederate terrorists. Not to mention the premonitions and ever-rumbling impulses of Oya, the Yoruba orisha god residing within Creeper, at times granting her divine powers to further her own aims.
Phew! That’s a whole lot of stuff happening in a 112 page novella! And yet it’s perfect, the exact length it needs to be to tell the story Clark wanted to tell. And the world he manages to bring to life in such a short book is nothing short of remarkable. I’ve never been to New Orleans or experienced Mardi Gras, but having read THE BLACK GOD’S DRUMS I can claim the next best thing, cos this colourful festival and it carousing revellers danced across the stage of my mind like I was watching it in high definition. Clark has a way with language that makes the words just burst out of the page, and he doesn’t need pages and pages of description to do it. His prose is just incisive, cutting through the nonsense to let the book’s imagery take over your imagination.
But this is Mardi Gras in a New Orleans and a world we wouldn’t recognise. I mean for one, it’s steampunk, so there’s airships dominating the skies and giant steam-powered insectoid constructs parading through the streets, but it’s also a political landscape altogether different from the post-Civil War South of real world history. I’m not going to talk about the specifics in any detail, because I think it just deserves to be experienced in the telling, but suffice to say it takes the real life history of the Haitian Revolution and amps that shit up. And to really appreciate this story I think it’s necessary to talk about the historic dominance of Eurocentric stories in fantasy, stories that have often demonised and erased people of colour, because P. Djèlí Clark has said it’s his goal as a writer to write stories that specifically centre people of colour in all their nuance, not just as Orientalist caricatures viewed through a white lens. He’s actually written a fantastic three-part series of articles about this that I honestly can’t recommend highly enough. They’re very insightful and practically useful for people who want to break out of the cycle of Eurocentrism that has dominated genre fiction for so long and is now, thankfully, starting to change. I’ll link the articles at the bottom and if you have a spare half hour I do encourage you check them out.
THE BLACK GOD’S DRUMS is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I’m intending on moving straight on to another P. Djèlí Clark novella, The Haunting of Tramcar 015, almost immediately. It takes place in the same setting as A Dead Djinn in Cairo and I’m so excited to get more of that setting. I also have an ARC of his newest book Ring Shout that I’m beyond excited about too. Damn, I just want to read everything P. Djèlí Clark has ever written! Simply put, he is fucking awesome.
Fantasy’s Othering Fetish, a series of articles examining the Eurocentric dominance and Orientalist lens of western fantasy. They’re quite short and quick reads, while also being very engaging and insightful.
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