P. Djeli Clark’s 2018 The Black God’s Drums is a steampunk fantasy novella.
Orphaned at ten, Jacqueline renamed herself “Creeper” and embraced life on the streets of the free city of New Orleans. An independent city state since the British, French, and Haitian airships forced peace on the Union and Confederacy, the city is neutral ground where all nationalities can mix … and conspire against each other.
Little noted by adults, thirteen-year-old Creeper believes what she has overheard will earn her a place on Ann-Marie St. Augustine’s airship Midnight Robber.
Haiti has developed super-weapons and taken its place among the Great Powers. It can wield magic that can sweep fleets and cities from the face of the Earth; it can unleash mundane incendiaries that could send ships to the bottom of the ocean. None of the white nations — the US, the CSA, Britain, and France — who might consider conquering Haiti can match Haitian magic and technology. Attempted conquest would be suicidal, as various would-be empire builders have discovered.
A Haitian scientist is in New Orleans to trade information for … something. Creeper believes that the man is selling the secret of the Black God’s Drums, a storm-weapon so fearsome that one use convinced Haiti to rely on other, lesser weapons. Other nations might not be quite so responsible. If Creeper and Ann-Marie can retrieve the errant scientist and prevent the sale, they will serve both themselves and the world well.
Creeper isn’t the only one to have learned about the scientist. Creeper and Ann-Marie barely survive an ambush; the mysterious scientist’s would-be trading partners are not so lucky. The hapless renegade has fallen into the hands of white fanatics. If he gives up the secret of the Black God’s Drums, the weapon will be used. It’s up to Creeper and Ann-Marie to make sure that does not happen.
One of the reasons I am not a great reviewer for steampunk fantasy is that I am easily distracted by questions like “how is it that airships are commercially viable in alternate worlds?” Presumably the same physical factors that gave heavier-than-air ships their long-term edge would still be in play. Perhaps it’s simply that HTA has not yet arrived to take the skies from dirigible balloons.
Balkanized Americas are another common pattern in steampunk; see Murder on the Titania. The Black God’s Drums offers a variation on the South Wins the Civil War scenario, The Slavers may have retained an enclave, but New Orleans, thanks to a slave uprising and allied help, is free to pursue its own path. The existence of a city where blacks occupy the upper ranks of society is an ongoing vexation to the Slavers, as is the power of mighty Haiti.
Some readers may wonder why it seems that only African gods that can be weaponized. If the Vatican has Saint-based WMDs, for example, it is such a closely held secret that Creeper is unaware of it. The simplest explanation is that only the African gods are real.
Creeper is an engaging protagonist, but I don’t know that she’s all that suited for an ongoing series. She has some impressive secrets, awe-inspiring resources on which she can draw when pressed. Having done so in this instalment, it is not clear where she goes from there. But perhaps I am wrong and perhaps the author will surprise me even after he has pulled the trigger on Chekhov’s gun.