Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

Jacqueline is a teenager living on the streets of the Free City of New Orleans, scratching a living in the only free city and independent city in the Confederacy. She is helped by her constant companion - the Orisha Oya, lady of winds.

She doesn’t want to stay - she wants to see the world and Anne Marie, agent of Haiti and the Free Islands, may be the ticket out there on her airship.

But first they have a city to save…. As a Haitian scientist has been captured and with the secret of their most powerful weapon: the Black God’s Drums.

Oooooh, yes, yes this is me intrigued

This is an alternate world, a steampunk world - honestly I don’t even know why I’m calling it a steampunk world because i think there’s only one airship to give me that hint, but the whole sense of this is really evocative of steampunk. In fact the whole book has an incredibly powerful sense of of place and setting. It’s surprising because this is done with very neat language. Normally when I describe a book as evocative and with a strong sense of place it’s a very positive spin on “really overwritten” or “in need of an editor with a big pair of scissors”. But this isn’t overwritten - it’s short and the writing is wonderfully concise at giving this sense of the entire world with minimal info dumping despite a massive amount of information to impart

And this world is fascinating. We have the standards of steampunk with the airships et al. But we also have a mix of magic and religion with the yoruba gods and loa having direct effect on the world and clear other magic systems being powerful influence. The United States is divided, the civil war still ongoing for years albeit with a truce. New Orleans is a free city, fiercely independent with strong allies allowing it to be independent from the Confederacy despite forces trying to undermine that. The Caribbean is independent, the Free Islands, following Haiti’s revolt now aided by powerful technology and divine intervention

It’s a fascinating world setting to take a steampunk setting and then outright addressing and combating the themes of colonialism which are almost inherent to this genre - or completely ignored by this genre. By openly addressing this, addressing the bigotry and oppression and then taking the magic and technology of the setting and using it to overturn some of that, it really does subvert so much of this genre. And any historical genre - there’s so much ”alternate history” fiction out there which basically replicates exactly the same modes of oppression that exist today - and the exact same victors, despite throwing in all kinds of supernatural elements. There’s no reason to repeat the same reality we have today when so much else is changing.

Our protagonist is Jacqueline (known as Creeper), a classic Urban fantasy orphan who lives on the streets of New Orleans. Her mother, a sex worker is gone - but despite that still has multiple maternal figures - from a collection of subversive spying nuns, to the madam at a brothel (and both she and Jacqueline are clear in combating and resisting any sense of shaming of sex workers) who are there to try and grab her off the streets and still look out for her. She also has a deep relationship with the goddess Oya, orisha of the winds, storms etc which is a fun relationship with powers and visions - albeit at Oya’s will not Jacqueline’s - I think Oya definitely has her own agenda

And Jacqueline definitely does - despite a path laid out by Madame Diouf for a more “respectable” lifestyle. She wants to leave the city. She wants to join an Airship commanded by Captain Anne-Marie St. Augustine. A Haitian with her own godly connections and she has an absolutely excellent relationship with Jacqueline. I love how they jab back and forth. I love their biplay, I love how Anne-Marie continually underestimates how mature Jacqueline is and has to remind herself who the adult in the situation is. They work extremely well together and I look forward so much to seeing this team develop because this story with Anne-Marie having to take Jacqueline along on her mission was so much fun

And the rest of Anne-Marie’s crew. She is Haitian, Black, bisexual, a swashbuckler, fighter and passionately loyal to her country and cause. Her crew has a Mongolian and Indian members - and these are just the ones named in this short book and her complicated fight with Oshun, the Orisha which has formed a relationship with her. I waaaant more of this.

There’s also some really nice examination of hierarchies and classism - like the recently free people of New Orleans turning round and looking down on Jacqueline as the child of a sex worker. Or how Haiti’s independence wasn’t unfraught with different fights between different groups

So we have a diverse cast, we have an absolutely amazing world setting, we have magic, we have steam punk, we have some excellent characters with some really good relationships. We have some excellent writing I loved, magic, adventure, neglected mythology, and so much more awesome potential and some nicely sharp social commentary. I love it and want more. So much more

Sadly, oh how short it was! Why so short! We could have had sooo much more - and there better be many many many many sequels.

Many sequels