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The Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark4 stars
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Phenderson Djèlí Clark is an Afro-Caribbean-American writer, born in the United States, who spent much of his early life in Trinidad and Tobago. Hungry for speculative fiction rooted in more diverse experiences and perspectives than the publishing world has historically offered, Clark has lent his considerable storytelling chops to work that pulls together elements from multiple genres. The results, so far, have been bullseyes, offering in 100 pages or less the quality of character development, world building, and adrenaline-fueled action that a great many writers have a hard time managing in a full length novel. This isn’t steampunk, it’s steamfunk. These stories make you want to move; action-packed alternate-historical fantasy mysteries with deep grooves and a killer bass line.

The Black God’s Drums transports us to a richly realized 19th century New Orleans, here a neutral port city in a divided America where the Civil War is in a sort of weary stalemate. Clark’s New Orleans is both recognizable (especially to those of us who have spent some time in the place and have a soft spot for the French Quarter) and strikingly reimagined, with a sky full of airships and automatons that patrol the cobblestone streets. Massive storm walls protect the city from the elements, hinting that the specter of Hurricane Katrina hovers as an influence over Clark’s world building as well.

In this world, the Haitian Revolution, which ended slavery on that island in 1804, was even more decisively successful, thanks to the deployment of The Black God’s Drums (also known as Shango’s Thunder), a weapon developed by a Haitian scientist that generated storms strong enough to smash an entire fleet of French ships into toothpicks. It was so powerful it permanently changed weather patterns in the Gulf, hence the storm walls.

Creeper is a 13-year-old orphan pickpocket in the Dickens tradition who lives well up on one of the storm walls near an airship mooring station, where her access to visitors from all over the world has fueled her sense of wanderlust. She is also (and I would have really liked to learn more about this) touched by a god. Oya, an African storm deity, rides shotgun in Creeper’s head, sending her the occasional precognitive visions. One day Creeper overhears a group of men secretly discussing a plan to smuggle The Black God’s Drums into the country to aid in the Confederate war effort. She knows of someone to whom she can trade the information. Ann-Marie St. Augustine is the Haitian captain of the airship Midnight Robber (lovely little Nalo Hopkinson homage there), a smuggler herself, and someone who might possibly help Creeper realize her dreams of seeing the world by taking the girl into her crew. As the two of them team up to stop a plot that could endanger all of New Orleans, we learn Ann-Marie has a divine secret of her own.

Clark’s storytelling is sharp and pacey, absolutely riddled with observant details that bring the world to life. Not the least of these is Creeper’s own voice, narrating the adventure in a convincing Creole that gives her a rough-hewn likability. And in addition to the endlessly atmospheric evocation of the city and its dark, rain-soaked streets, its brothels and above-ground cemeteries, Clark adds little humorous touches, like the two nuns who help our ladies out with local knowledge and magical gadgetry, kind of like a Cajun Q Division. The Black God’s Drums is a story that delivers brilliantly executed entertainment, and it’s a rare case of a book leaving itself open for a sequel that makes me want literally dozens of them.