The Black God’s Drums – by P. Djèlí Clark

If you follow this blog you’re already familiar with P. Djèlí Clark, author of the Dead Djinn universe. This time I decided to read one of his other works; a novella that is similarly set in an alternate history where folk myths are real, but has its own distinctive setting, as well as a language that fits it.

Title: The Black God’s Drums

Author: P. Djèlí Clark


Publication Date: 21 August 2018

Genre: Fantasy – Alternate History

Pages: 112

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Synopsis: In an alternate version of the 1880s, the Union and the Confederates are stuck in an uneasy truce, and New Orleans, which is where our story is set, has been declared a neutral, independent territory. One night, Creeper – an enterprising street urchin who happens to share a special connection with the goddess Oya – finds out that some Confederade soldiers might be about to seize a weapon known as the “Black God’s Drums”, that is to say a portentuous artifact capable of summoning devastating storms, which has been instrumental in the liberation of Haiti, but at the price of a tremendous collateral damage. Creeper gets in touch with Captain Ann-Marie St. Augustine, of the airship Midnight Robber, offering her precious intel in exchange for becoming a member of her crew, and the two get involved in a quest to retrieve the weapon before it’s too late.

Analysis: The story is told in first person by Creeper, in a language that reflects her background and the general ambiance of the story, making abundant use of vernacular speech patters, as well as of French words spelled phonetically.

The narration makes open references to Yoruba religion, as well as to Afro-Carribean folklore; in this world, mythical creatures are real and able to get involved in human history, as shown by both the events of the novella and its implied background. The story is also heavy with references to the history of slavery in the USA – some of them obvious, such as the use of the Civil War as a plot point, other more peculiar, such as the existence of a so-called “drapeto gas” that’s used by the Confederates to keep their slaves subservient, which is inspired to the made-up illness called “drapetomania“, that supposedly caused slaves to flee the plantations that held them (because according to its ideator, slavery was so beneficial to its victims that only madness could explain their desire to escape – AND YES SOMEONE REALLY SAID THIS BULLSHIT).

The story in itself is short, simple and straightforward, but still able to makes us acquainted with a very lovable main character and to flesh out a setting that is charming and not deprived of nuance; I especially enjoyed how magic and myth are not only intertwined with more mundane themes, but how they are also portrayed in an ambiguous light – as powerful forces that might help us in our worthy causes, but are also beyond our full understanding and control.

Conclusions & Recommendations: I really enjoyed this novella, and even though I found some very clear similarities with the author’s other works, this did not detract at all from my appreciation; indeed, while some styles and themes are easily recongnisable, they’re also done in a new and inspired way. Recommended to all fantasy readers.

Content Warning: Slavery – Racism – Violence

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