You know the most annoying thing about reading on a Kindle? You have no idea of how long your book is, or where you’ve got to. Imagine the scene: I’m thoroughly absorbed in P. Djèlí Clark’s atmospheric tale of sky pirates and steampunk in an alternate-universe New Orleans. The initial action has rounded off nicely, and I’m savouring the (surely) imminent start of the plot… when, suddenly, boom. The end! What I’d thought was a novel turned out to be a novella, a mere 114 pages; and what I thought was the first act turned out, in fact, to be the whole. I actually felt bereft: I wanted to know so much more about the characters – the streetwise urchin Jacqueline and the dashing pirate captain Ann-Marie St. Augustine – but it looks as though this is it, for now. My disappointment, I stress, was simply due to the book’s abbreviated length. Clark’s evocative story shows how quickly an accomplished author can draw you into their world, with intriguing characters backed up by a glorious narrative voice, full of bayou rhythms and Yoruba folklore.
In this world, the revolution in Haiti succeeded. When Napoleon sent a French fleet to capture the island, the ships were destroyed in a terrifying storm, gathered by the ancestral gods of the Haitian people. Now Haiti is proudly free, and so, in the aftermath of a slave uprising, is New Orleans: a neutral, nonaligned territory where men and women of any colour can follow their dreams and their destiny. But New Orleans lies in a perilous position, sandwiched between the lands of the Confederate and Union forces. Three years ago, after eight years of civil war, the two factions made a truce; but truces are merely pauses in the greater game. The Confederates, it turns out, have a plan that may enable them to overpower their Union neighbours and dominate them forever.
Jacqueline is an orphan, albeit one with friendly eyes looking out for her, whether those belong to Madame Diouf – owner of the brothel where Jacqueline’s late mother worked – or the unconventional nuns who, briefly, tried to educate her. And there is another ally too: the orisha deity Oya, goddess of the winds, whose protection (and possession) has been passed down through the female members of Jacqueline’s family, ever since they came from Africa years before. Oya is sometimes distracting, sometimes alarming, but always opinionated; and, worryingly, as the city prepares for ‘Maddi grá’, she is shifting in Jacqueline’s head. There is a warning there, but Jacqueline can’t quite decipher it.
While squirreled away in her hidey-hole beneath the airship docks, Jacqueline overhears a strange conversation. A Cajun man meets with a group of Confederates who are seeking the Black God’s Drums. He can provide them with it: a rogue Haitian scientist is willing to give them the secret, in return for an unspecified jewel. Jacqueline, knowing the value of information, immediately knows who to take it to: another recent arrival, a certain swaggering sky-pirate. Captain of the Midnight Robber airship, Ann-Marie St. Augustine has little time for the tales of a small girl, but she’s caught by news of the Black God’s Drums – also known as Shango’s Thunder, the cause of the storm which destroyed Napoleon’s ships and freed Haiti. And there’s more. As she and the captain talk, Jacqueline is unsettled by a sudden realisation. She’s not the only one here possessed by an orisha deity. The captain, she realises, carries with her Oshun, Oya’s sister-wife – though the captain is struggling to contain and resist her.
The magic of those old Afrikin gods is part of this city, ma maman used to say, buried in its bones and roots with the slaves that built it, making the ground and air and waterways sacred land. Only we forgot the names that went with that power we brought over here. Since Haiti got free, though, those gods were coming back, she’d said, across the waters, all the way from Lafrik. Now here’s two of them in a bordello in New Orleans. Who knows what that means.
What it means is drama – a race against time to discover who holds the secret to the Black God’s Drums, and how to prevent him from handing it over to those who will misuse it. Add in a pair of most unlikely nuns, a sinister skull-faced masked man, and the simmering tension of the city before the Mardi Gras, and it makes for a breathtaking story. Told in a lyrical sing-song voice, pitch-perfect throughout, it throws you into the culture and spirituality of this half-familiar steampunk world and simply expects you to catch up. And you do. Clark’s worldbuilding invites you to explore further: I ended up going down a Wikipedia rabbit-hole about orisha deities and Yoruba religion, which was completely fascinating. And I’ve now been reminded of the books I bought about the Haitian revolution a few years ago, when my interest was sparked by a colleague’s exhibition at the British Museum about Toussaint Louverture (see here and here).
Naturally, I have to find out for sure whether Clark has written anything else about these characters, because if he has, I want to read it. His most popular stories take place in a different alternate universe: a steampunk version of early 20th-century Cairo. I have my eye on his book A Master of Djinn, but I should probably first read his two short stories set in the same world: A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015. It’ll be interesting to see how he writes in a more conventional narrative voice: I’m assuming, at least, that the gloriously musical narrative voice of The Black God’s Drums won’t be replicated in stories set in Cairo. But perhaps there’s an equally engaging style there. At the moment I’m slightly less excited by Ring Shout, his alternate history about the Ku Klux Klan, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise if anyone thinks it’s unmissable. Is there anything else by him that I might have overlooked?