RogerBW's Blog

The Black God's Drums, P. Djèlí Clark 28 June 2019

2018 steampunk SF/fantasy novella. The American Civil War ended in a peace treaty, and New Orleans is a neutral city. But in among the airships and steam-powered walkers, someone's planning to deploy the ultimate terror weapon.

And the narrator, a street-dwelling girl known as Creeper, is ridden by an Orisha. Which for me is that one thing too much; keep the setting and the magic, but take away the steampunk (which doesn't have much effect on the plot), or – though it would be a bigger task – take away the magic, and you'd have a lean and powerful story. As it stands, it seems that there's just a bit too much going on to fit into this length of narrative.

Also unhelpful is the writing, first-person-present narration with everyone talking in a toned-down patois that may work better for other people but, for me, didn't add anything that made up for the constant low-level irritation of reading it.

"It don't bother you, then?" the captain presses. "Having she inside you? Knowing what you thinking?"

And that's a shame, because once you get past those problems this is a damn good story. Perhaps the arc is predictable, but that's not a crippling flaw; we get interesting people, doing interesting things, and overall a sense of zest and enthusiasm that's missing from all too many modern stories. There are fine little details, like the gas used by the South to keep their slaves under control being known as Drapeto, and the political implications of the terror weapon whoever holds it.

"And you going to stop stealing. It's damn immoral!"

"You're a smuggler!" I point out, extending my arms to take in the airship.

"But not a thief!" she retorts evenly.

"The name of your ship is Midnight Robber!"

She pauses at this. Shrugs. Then says evenly: "It's satire."

I don't believe there's any sequel planned, and it's not needed, but I'd like to read more about the world and indeed these characters. This is in serious competition with the Wells for my top novella voting slot, and I didn't expect anything would get that high.

(This work was nominated for the 2019 Hugo Awards.)

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