Book review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèli Clark

The Black God’s Drums is a fun little adventure that takes place in a well-developed and engaging alternative timeline.  It may rely a little too heavily on worldbuilding at the expense of the story, but it is still engrossing, reminiscent of old pulp adventures or PC adventure games of the early 1990s.  It is by far the most digestible read among the 2019 Hugo Award novella nominees.

Welcome to the Free City of New Orleans at the time of the US Civil War.  The city serves as safe haven for all sides in the conflict, as well as the meeting spot and place to relax to other nationals.  This is the city where union and confederate soldiers may sit next to each other in a brothel.  Airships dock at the port all day, to deliver their cargo or passengers from the technologically advanced Haiti, Caribbean Free Isles and other destinations.  And near the port lurks a little girl, Creeper, picking her targets for emptying their pockets when they are not looking.

Creeper is endowed with a connection to an African goddess who can control the wind, and who sometimes sends visions to the girl.  By accident, she witnesses a conversation among a few confederate officers who are about to acquire the Black God’s Drums, a weapon of incredible power, which had already devastated the French fleet on its way to reconquer the newly independent Haiti.  Creeper, aided partially by her visions and in part by a duo of very strange nuns, approaches an airship captain with the information, in exchange for a spot on her airship.  Through several adventures and twists, the two of them and a few helpers arrive in the middle of a swamp, just in time to capture the scientist providing the weapon to a group of breakaway rebels, are too late in defeating the rebels and witness the weapon launch, threatening to sink New Orleans under a deluge of water and wind.

The most compelling part of the book is the worldbuilding.  Clark has set up a well developed world where the civil war was fought to a standstill, and New Orleans gained an independent status.  Airships, psychedelic gasses, miracle weapons, splinter groups and quirky characters all come with well established background history, and all seamlessly fit together.  This setting would make an excellent film or TV series.

The story is fairly straight-forward and by the numbers.  There are no surprises at all here, nor does the author attempt any.  He lets the storyline flow along the world he created, and the transition between exposure and story telling is absolutely seamless.  Unfortunately, some readers may find this approach a little too simplistic, but I was overwhelmed by nostalgia: the book reads like pulp adventures from the 40s and 50s (I’m not that old, but I still grew up with them), and its linearity is reminiscent of old Sierra On-Line adventure games, such as the first Gabriel Knight title.  It was very refreshing to find such an easy to read story among the heavier Hugo nominees.

My only gripe about this title was the inclusion of a number of gods, who seem to possess some of the main characters.  I felt like these added nothing to the story (other than the easy way out of the final conundrum), and didn’t fit all that well into the worldbuilding, either.  To me, they seemed a little heady-handed and added only as an afterthought, after the book had been already written and revised.  I could have easily done without this distraction.

All in all, this title did not break the bank with awards.  But it failed for a good reason: it is eminently readable.  It offers a simple, unpretentious and easy to read story, which will delight readers who are looking for a break from heavier literature.  The story is overshadowed by exposure of the fictional steampunkish world, but this world is very compelling and refreshingly different from the standard science fiction fare.  I consumed the book in one sitting and was entertained throughout the entire experience.  I surely hope the author creates more works set in this universe and keeps with his light and easy flowing prose.

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