P. Djéli Clark won a 2019 Alex Award for The Black God’s Drums, which was also a finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, Locus, and World Fantasy Awards. The Alex Award is given to 10 books annually by the Young Adult Library Services Association to books written for adults that appeal to readers aged 12-18. This is a short but riveting, action-packed novel set in New Orleans, 1884. As with his previous two works set in 1912 Cairo (A Dead Djinn in Cairo, The Haunting of Tram Car 015), Clark creates a world full of powerful magic and astounding technology. He also develops a strong, young, dark-skinned female hero whose knowledge and talents will not only serve her but could also help save her world.
The action takes place in New Orleans, 1884, and while the city has many characteristics we would recognize, it is not the New Orleans of our historical timeline. In this world, the American Civil War never really ended. The southern states are still slave-owning territories while northern states are not; Haiti and the Free Isles have successfully rid themselves of the abhorrent institution and are thriving free countries. New Orleans is a free city and a bustling port where Unionists, Confederates, Haitians, and others from all over the world gather for trade and good times. As in Clark’s previous novels, this America has rather advanced technology in the form of airships and weaponry, and magic is real. Instead of the djinn of Cairo, however, this part of the world knows African gods and goddesses who are active, usually through particular individuals. The narrator of this novel is one such person. Thirteen-year-old Jacqueline, aka Creeper, is a streetwise orphan who longs to leave New Orleans and see the world. She supports herself through pickpocketing and trade, usually in the form of valuable information. Creeper also has a close link to Oya, the goddess of storms, life, death and rebirth. Oya communicates with Creeper and, if allowed, takes possession of her.
When we meet Creeper, she is atop one of the enormous dam walls that protect New Orleans from terrible storms, dreaming of boarding an airship and flying away. An opportunity presents itself when she overhears a group of Confederates planning to blackmail a Haitian scientist into building them a terrible weapon known as the Black God’s Drums or Shango’s Thunder. Creeper knows that this information is valuable and plans to trade it to her advantage, but before she leaves the wall top, Oya sends her a terrible vision: a skull moon rising over New Orleans. Something terrible is going to happen, Creeper can sense it. Back in the city proper, which is preparing for Maddi Gra (Mardi Gras), Creeper uses her connections at a local brothel and a convent to get this intelligence to the right people and to find the captain of the airship called Midnight Robber, a charismatic and tough woman named Ann-Marie who will find herself connected to Creeper in a couple of surprising ways. With the help of the captain’s unusual crew and Creeper’s underground connections, they will have to work quickly to unravel the mystery of who seeks the Black God’s Drums and why.
One of the things I enjoy about Clark’s novels is that he is able to create such a rich, interesting environment, combining fact and magic, in such a compact novel. The reader learns a bit about Haitian history and African folklore, and there are many very cool and interesting characters. I hope that he will return to New Orleans in the future and tell us more about Creeper, the captain, her crew, and the Sisters of the Sacred Family, who are badasses.