Bite-size Books: The Black God’s Drums

Creeper wants to fly the skies in an air ship, but first she  needs to earn a place on a crew. When she overhears conspirators plotting to unleash the Black God’s Drums, she might have found the leverage she needs… if she can save her city from the natural disaster about to overtake it.

I didn’t read a lot of novellas in 2018, but The Black God’s Drums caught my eye early with its striking cover art. I wanted to know who this determined young woman was; her face was arresting, overcoming my usual hesitation about steampunk stories. Add in a suggestion of orisha in an alternate New Orleans and it was a pitch I couldn’t resist.

I’m delighted to say it lives up to its promise, delivering a swashbuckling, god-haunted tale of a New Orleans street urchin and a one-legged lesbian airship captain facing off against white supremacists (honestly, it was Christmas come early. And yes, it has taken me a while to get round to writing this review).

You know from the opening lines that this isn’t the world we know: in this New Orleans, Dutch engineers built enormous iron walls – les Grands Murs – to keep storm surges out of the city. Now the airships dock on them, and in a few evocative sentences we get a vision of a vibrant, diverse, independent city perched between land and sea.

New Orleans is neutral territory, freed by a slave uprising at the start of the Civil War and kept independent by the watchful intervention of the British, the French and the Haitians. The hints of what lies beyond its walls are equally captivating. Haiti and the Caribbean Free Isles, self-emancipated and kept free by the threat of mutual divine destruction. Russian(!) Kalifornia. The war-torn States, no longer United. These are not the Americas we know, for all the familiarity of the small-minded white men determined to turn back the clock and re-enslave the black population.

In New Orleans, you can’t survive on just dreams

Creeper is a young woman chosen from birth by the storm goddess Oya. This has its advantages – clearing streets with rainy gusts when she needs it – but comes with unsought visions and distracting urges. Uneducated, light-fingered, she dreams of sailing off on an airship one day. And now – finally – she has information to trade that might win her a place aboard: a Haitian scientist is being blackmailed into selling a devastating technology to the Confederacy.

I enjoyed the way the story took its time from there, first introducing its characters, then shading in their background and building up its world before unleashing the full horror of its plot. The pacing was spot on – pausing briefly to expand world and characters, then pushing ahead with a set piece scene that made what we’d learned relevant and propelled the narrative forward. Taken together, it felt like more than the sum of its parts, a tasty slice of adventure.

The gods are woven into the fabric of the everyday from the beginning, riding their chosen and taking a direct hand in proceedings when they see fit. They’re not protagonists in their own right, but they’re powerfully implied characters with traits and foibles all their own. The pantheon is as important as the politics they’re drawn into, and I loved it.

And for once I got a steampunk world I actually enjoyed. The towering iron walls along the shores. The half-drowned city of the dead beyond them. The scuttling six-legged mudbug driven by the police (no steam carriages here; just clanking insectile conveyances!). The flickering shadows of gaslit streets and the many factions they conceal. The technologically-minded obeah nuns. The skin-crawlingly awful drapeto gas, used by the Confederacy to keep their slaves forcibly docile (…yes, that gave me the absolute horrors). I loved the way little details layered up into a complex cityscape I longed to explore.

Along the way we get wry asides on ignorant generalisations and hints of the many differences hiding in the background (air punch for General Tubman). We also get a high octane finale where everyone rescues everyone else, much to my absolute delight – and where we are reminded that, like Shango’s Drums, a goddess’s favour is a double-edged sword.

It makes for a rousing story: complete in itself, but oh, I want to see more of this world.