Now I’m really getting back into the reading spirit! This 2018 novella is my second story from author P. Djeli Clarke and one that I had been looking forward to for some time now. This book seemed to be showing up everywhere where it first came out and after really enjoying my last work from this author I knew I had to get it off of my TBR list.
The magic of the Afrikin gods is part of this city, ma maman used to say, buried in its bones and roots with the slaves that built it…
The story is set in the mid-1880s in an alternate history New Orleans. Serving as a neutral port between the United States and the Confederacy, the city is a hub of intrigue, trade, and entertainment for people from both sides of the conflict. It is also a popular destination for citizens of the newly independent Haiti and the Free Islands of the Carribean who won their independence from the colonial powers through the use of superior technology and a powerful, weather altering weapon dubbed the Black God’s Drums that drastically altered the balance of power in the region. It is here that we are introduced to a teenage street urchin named Creeper who lives in a secluded part of an airship dock. Resourceful and street-smart, Creeper has been touched by Oya, the African Orisha goddess of wind and storms, and often is the beneficiary of her powers in times of need. One day while watching the city, Creeper happens to overhear a conversation between a Creole man and a group of Confederate officers. It seems a Haitian scientist is conspiring to sell weapons technology to the Confederacy, a potentially deadly development for all involved given it catastrophic side effects. Feeling the need to act, Creeper seeks to enlist the help of the Midnight Robber, an airship under the command of the famed pirate Captain Ann-Marie and a pair of Sisters of the Holy Family to prevent a tragic loss of life.
I loved this! The story hit so many of the right notes for me I’m not sure where to even start singing its praises. New Orleans is a fantastic, magical place in our real world, but this book succeeded in making it even moreso in a way that felt authentic to the city. I really enjoyed the way the author mixed in the essential parts of the city’s experience, everything from the local culture, dangerous storms, and revelry, with the more supernatural elements and African mythology. The aesthetics of this story were also quite engaging, offering a mesmerizing balance of cool and terrifying devices and imagery. Right from the start the author invoked a steampunk vibe with descriptions of a dock teeming with gas lamps and airships before moving into the darker territory of weapons of mass destruction and the gas masks used in the Confederate States to create docile slaves. On this note, I really liked how the technology fit seamlessly into the historical and cultural context of the story, making it feel all the more real.
What brought these ideas to life, however, were the fantastic characters. The two mains, Creeper and Captain Ann-Marie were real standouts for me. Creeper was a fun and resourceful person to follow, and the ways in which she was guided by and interacted with the piece of Oya within her gave her a depth that went well beyond her years. Ann-Marie was likewise fascinating, fully capable of all the carousing and fighting one might expect from a pirate captain, but also with an unexpected depth that made her really memorable as well. Although they had a relatively minor part in terms of page time, I can’t leave the two nuns out of this review. Curiously well connected and supplied, they offered some formidable aid to Creeper and Ann-Marie in their quest.
Put them all together and these elements made for one fascinating story that every bit lived up to my expectations. The ideas, world building, and characters were all top notch and I could easily have spent another 300-400 pages more in this world. That the author wove in an exciting blend of history, mythology, and steampunk imagery made it all the better for me. I am definitely adding more of his works to my priority reading queue and I recommend you all consider doing the same.