Book Talk: The Black God’s Drums


Sarah: 00:04 Hi, I’m Sarah.

Rachel: 00:06 I’m Rachel.

Sarah: 00:06 And this is Unassigned Reading.

Rachel: 00:08 Where we discuss the books you’re never going to talk about in English class.

Sarah: 00:12 Right. Y,.A. sci-fi, fantasy, and all the other genres you read for fun.

Rachel: 00:15 Obviously this is not a spoiler free podcast.

Sarah: 00:18 So many spoilers.

Rachel: 00:19 And this month we’re doing a deep dive into a world of Haitian inspired fantasy set admist the backdrop of the civil war in P. Djèlí Clark’s The Black God’s Drums.

Sarah: 00:28 If that description doesn’t get your attention, I don’t know what will.

Rachel: 00:31 The novella was published by Tor, an SFF publisher that’s put out some seriously amazing Scifi and fantasy books, including some that we really love like Binti you by Nnedi Okorafor, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan Maguire ,and River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey. It was also recently nominated for a Hugo award.

Sarah: 00:47 Okay, now say that again three times fast.

Rachel: 00:50 No.

Sarah: 00:51 Basically it’s a really, really excellent read.

Rachel: 00:56 Yeah, it’s got gorgeous prose, rich plots, intriguing characters.

Sarah: 01:00 And I think it’s my turn to do our 60 second summary.

Rachel: 01:03 Okay. You know, I think you sound a little too excited about that.

Sarah: 01:07 So here’s the deal. I should feel good. It’s like a hundred pages.

Rachel: 01:12 It’s a hundred pages.

Sarah: 01:13 But it’s also been a full month since I’ve read it. So I don’t know about this.

Rachel: 01:21 I’d feel worse for you if it wasn’t a hundred pages because like, do you remember when I had to recap 800 pages of Harry Potter? Because I do.

Sarah: 01:30 On the other hand, you had just read it. So how hard could that be?

Rachel: 01:35 Uh huh. Well, guess what, you have to do it anyway.

Sarah: 01:40 Okay.

Rachel: 01:41 One, two, three go.

Sarah: 01:44 Okay. Creeper is, um, a kid living on the streets of New Orleans during the civil war. And New Orleans is sort of like out of civil war. Basically, there’s a big stalemate in the civil war because of technology, and New Orleans is just sorta out of the whole thing. And then Creeper overhears some people talking, and she’s got a feeling that this new weapon’s about to come into play. So she reaches out to the crew of the Midnight Robber, who she thinks could help her stop this thing from happening and tells them that they’re going to sell this weapon called the Black God’s Drums to the rebels for the, in the civil war, the confederacy. And that’s really bad because they going to destroy New Orleans with it. So she sorta convinces them, and they try to figure out how this has happened. And like this guy is going to sell these secrets. They go to get him, but it turns out his daughter has been kidnapped by these other people, and that’s why he’s going to like give this like terrible weapon. And they’d go to the swamps and they fight and …

Rachel: 02:43 Stop.

Sarah: 02:43 they’re about to like save. I almost made it the end, so.

Rachel: 02:48 I mean it was a hundred page book. I feel like, we can’t say that enough. You did all right.

Sarah: 02:55 Anyway, I’m going to finish. They set off the weapon, and then Creeper and Ann Marie, the captain of the Midnight Robber save day because they both have like a connection to an Orisha, and together they like to have that power and they’re able to stop New Orleans from being destroyed. The end.

Rachel: 03:13 Okay. Yeah. I was going to say you waited, I mean technically not even, right until the end because that was over time to mention that both Creeper and Ann Marie have a connection to Orisha, two different Orisha goddesses.

Sarah: 03:27 Yeah. I also left out all the steampunk stuff.

Rachel: 03:30 You left out all this punk stuff, although I can understand that. And Marie is the captain of a airship. She’s, she’s not like a pirate, but they’re kind of like smugglers I guess.

Sarah: 03:40 She’s somewhere I’d say between a smuggler and a privateer.

Rachel: 03:45 Yeah, yeah yeah.

Sarah: 03:45 She’s kind of pirating officially on behalf of Haiti.

Rachel: 03:47 Right. And so I would also elaborate just a little about the situation in New Orleans because …

Sarah: 03:54 Yeah.

Rachel: 03:54 So there’s kind of a stalemate in the civil war, but I would kind of argue that the civil war is actually really like kind of over at this point. And basically instead of that resolving in the way that it actually did in the actual timeline, the union and the confederacy never came back together. And New Orleans is actually independent, and it’s being protected as an independent port by a bunch of different people. The Haitians, the French, the British, and they’re all guarding it from the union and confederate soldiers to keep them from trying to overtake it since it is this like valuable port city. And since that conflict was never like totally resolved, so there still is a lot of like tension and some fighting there.

Sarah: 04:30 Yeah. So a lot of differences with what really happened, so other countries did get involved, but not in the way maybe people had hoped at the time. There’s also, um, this drug involved,

Rachel: 04:39 Drapeto

Sarah: 04:41 that’s used to keep the slaves…

Rachel: 04:43 Because slavery still exists in the confederacy, since again the civil never actually came to a conclusion.

Sarah: 04:48 It basically turns them into zombies is what I’d say.

Rachel: 04:53 Essentially, they just kind of like mindlessly content to do whatever they’re told.

Sarah: 04:57 Yeah. Bad stuff.

Rachel: 04:58 Real bad stuff. Yeah.

Sarah: 04:59 But yeah, this is also because like this is a steampunk story. So like now we’re in the civil war and we have air ships and bombs and really intense weapons and just technological stalemate that didn’t happen. Just a lot of technological, differences that have sort of transformed the way this war played out.

Rachel: 05:17 I mean, really, there’s so much depth and richness here. You’ve got…

Sarah: 05:22 For a hundred pages.

Rachel: 05:24 For a hundred pages. It’s kind of hard to believe.

Sarah: 05:26 Every word matters.

Rachel: 05:28 Yeah. It’s, it’s very well chosen, well-placed, and you’ve got, I mean, just this really rich and well developed setting of this alternate New Orleans with, you know, like we talked about, we’ve got the airships and you know, everybody guarding it from the union and the confederates. You’ve got all this, Orisha magic, this really brash, adventurous protagonists connected to the goddess of storms. You’ve got this terrible magical technology that altered the climate already and now could destroy New Orleans. You’ve got a mission to stop it. Just, I mean, so much going on with the plot and the setting and all the relationships between the characters because, oh, this is the thing that we did forget to mention. Not Super Important, but there is actually a connection between Creeper and Ann Marie even beyond the Orisha that they’re both connected to and the fact that they both like love the sky and Creeper wants to join her ship, the Midnight Robber, but Creeper’s mother actually had, relationship might not be exactly the right word. Creepers. Mother was acquainted with Anne Marie because she worked at the brothel that uh, Anne Marie goes to sometimes. So anyway, the captain and Creeper, they’re connected through a lot of different sort of forms and that’s part of what brings them together initially. And Yeah, I mean I’ve, I’ve read a few novellas and I think this is probably one of the most densely packed and well executed ones I’ve ever read.

Sarah: 06:47 Yeah. How clearly the world is created with like so little room to build it is really incredible because you get a really good sense of what’s happened, why like the, you get a world around New Orleans, what’s happening to New Orleans.

Rachel: 07:02 Which is incredible because it is such a different world, and that’s hard to develop really well over a hundred pages, especially when you have this much story going on too.

Sarah: 07:11 Yes. And they also, he really melded steampunk with fantasy because most steampunk I’ve read doesn’t really have a fantasy element.

Rachel: 07:21 Yeah. And I feel like a lot of time with novellas you kind of wind up either feeling like you didn’t get enough of the story or you want more or there’s almost like a certain sparseness to it. Like it was being stretched out more than it needed to. Or again, not enough because it really should have been a novel. And I, I didn’t feel any of those things with this one. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I would gladly read more in this universe. Like I would read a full length novel.

Sarah: 07:46 Oh, for sure.

Rachel: 07:46 I would read a series, more short stories. Like Clark, whatever you want to do, my man I’m here for it. But yeah, I mean the story itself still felt whole and complete, and I think that’s like, that’s a huge accomplishment for a novella.

Sarah: 07:59 Yeah, it’s, it felt like the perfect length and it didn’t, like I said, like sometimes with a novella, you feel like you’re getting a snapshot of the world and you don’t really get a sense of the world outside of the novella. Like what’s the plot of the novella. And this really managed to give us a real picture of the world surrounding what’s just happening in the novella too, which is really interesting.

Rachel: 08:18 I agree. And with that, I think we should maybe kind of give a little background on what novellas are for anybody out there who may not be super familiar with that term. So a novella, I mean probably most people hear it and just know it’s kind of like a little novel or something, but basically…

Sarah: 08:33 Shorter than a full novel.

Rachel: 08:33 Shorter than a novel is the easiest way to think of it. But to get oh little more technical and novella is the length of story between a short story and a novel. And so there’s a lot of kind of variability in how people define that in terms of length. But it’s usually, I think generally accepted to be somewhere between like 20,000 and 40,000 words in length. I know a lot of people have trouble with word length, but that’s what you got to go with sometimes in the literary world. And I mean technically it could go up to just below 50,000 before it would be considered a full length novel.

Sarah: 09:04 Yeah.

Rachel: 09:04 So basically the easy way to think about it is…

Sarah: 09:08 Are we really confuse everybody and blow their minds like when I learned about a novelette?

Rachel: 09:11 Oh no, let’s not do that.

Sarah: 09:12 Are we just going to?

Rachel: 09:14 Then they’ll just be really…

Sarah: 09:15 Let’s not confuse everyone even more.

Rachel: 09:15 Okay, okay, everybody. A novelette is the length of story between a short story and a novella. Now you’re really confused.

Sarah: 09:25 Yeah.

Rachel: 09:26 Yeah.

Sarah: 09:26 Like wait, I thought a novella was the, yeah.

Rachel: 09:29 I thought a novella was a long short story. Nope. There’s another one, but we’re not going to go too much into that today because this is not a novelette this is a novella. Yeah. Literary people just like to confuse everybody is basically the moral of that story. So yeah, novella is longer and it can have a lot more plot and depth than just a short story, which is usually under 10,000 words, but it’s still a lot more compact than a novel, which you know, is kind of why we were saying were both really impressed with how much was put into it.

Sarah: 09:55 To me, like one of the things that’s like helps me identify a novella is it’s short, but it has chapters.

Rachel: 10:02 Sometimes.

Sarah: 10:02 A short story doesn’t usually have chapters.

Rachel: 10:05 It doesn’t have to have chapters, but that can be a good way to identify it.

Sarah: 10:07 It doesn’t have to, but most of them novellas I’ve read did have chapters.

Rachel: 10:11 Well, honestly, people might be surprised because there are probably some people out there who are like, hmm, a novella. I’ve never seen one of those before. You probably have, you may have just not realized it because there are a lot of really well known examples. To name a few Lady Susan by Jane Austen, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, Animal Farm by George Orwell. A few more modern examples like Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, and Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson. So it’s a not an uncommon form necessarily, it’s just one you may not recognize as being something different than a novel when you’re reading it.

Sarah: 10:44 If you read Romance, a lot of romance authors write novellas.

Rachel: 10:47 Yeah, for sure.

Sarah: 10:48 To sort of like do like sort of in between stories for side characters when they don’t have like a full story to write for that character, or they are, they don’t have a story that takes more than that to write. So frequently get novellas with romance authors.

Rachel: 11:01 Yeah. So speaking of background information, I also wanted to touch a little bit on Orisha since that’s a really important part of this story for anyone who’s listened to our episode on Children of Blood and Bone. We talked about it somewhat in that because that’s another book where Orisha magic, and just the concept of Orisha in general is a really important aspect. So for anyone who isn’t familiar or just doesn’t remember the Orisha are deities of the Yoruba people of Nigeria and just kind of more generally, uh, just among similar beliefs from people of West Africa. And it was carried over to other places, including the Caribbean and South America through the slave trade. And the, Orisha also had a profound influence on the development of Voodoo in Haiti and Santeria in Cuba. So like you’ll, you’ll see this idea cropping up in other places, not just in West Africa. So the kind of Orisha magic that we see in The Black God’s Drums is magic that’s gifted from the gods. So Creeper’s powers and Anne Marie’s powers, they come from this connection that they have to the gods specifically. So they kind of both have a little piece of the spirit of these Orisha goddesses in them. So Creepers case that’s Oya and in Captain Anne Marie’s case, it’s Oshun. And I actually thought it was really great. I don’t know if you noticed the dedication of the book. I always like to see what those are.

Sarah: 12:20 No.I don’t know. I frequently read those, but I don’t know that I did for this one.

Rachel: 12:23 Didn’t stick out to you? Okay. It stuck out to me because I think we’ve talked about this in previous episodes, but I always like lock onto anything to that I think might be sort of alluding toward the title or like important things in the book. So the dedication was “to those who survived the crossing and who carried their black gods with them.”

Sarah: 12:38 Oh, I did read the dedication. I forgot.

Rachel: 12:41 This is a great dedication, first of all. Like I just, I love that. And it’s also really perfect for this book as well. Obviously the title in part is referencing Shango’s Thunder, which is quite literally the Black God’s drums. Um, we didn’t touch on that too much I think in explaining exactly what that was. But basically that’s this huge weather weapon that.

Sarah: 13:01 Yeah, and I want to talk about it more in general.

Rachel: 13:04 it’s, it’s really wreaked havoc on the climate of this world.

Sarah: 13:09 Basically. The way I, I see it is it’s a steampunk nuke. They’ve built a nuclear weapon.

Rachel: 13:15 It’s like, it’s a weather nuke, basically.

Sarah: 13:18 It has different effects, but it has this sort of climate catastrophe that we would expect from use of nuclear weapons.

Rachel: 13:26 Right, exactly. So obviously that’s one that’s really the main way that we get the title from. But I still, you know noticing, the black gods that we brought over or that were carried over. And so that’s a really, that’s another really important element of the book is exploring the African Diaspora. You know, the religious beliefs that were brought over through the slave trade and that the descendants of those slaves kept with them through these black gods, you know, throughout the generations. And then I also just thought, you know, kind of continuing with that thread, the way that Oya and Creeper are connected is really, really interesting to me because it’s not necessarily what you would think, you know, because they aren’t just blessed by these Orisha’s magic. You know, it’s not like that. A bit of Oya’s spirit is actually living in Creeper. So Oya has a really profound impact upon her. She can influence her moods, her likes, her actions even. There’s a moment that really stood out to me because this was before we really understood exactly how that connection worked. Where Creeper first sees Anne Marie in the brothel, and she like has this just flash of jealousy, and you’re just kinda like where did that come from? My girl, what’s, what’s going on? But it’s because even before Creeper actually realizes it, Oya realizes that Anne Marie has a connection to the goddess Oshun who is one of the other wives of the god Shango, who Shango’s thunder. Oya was like one of his wives. So another connection there. But anyway, so, so that was the goddess like actually having an effect on her feelings. And I thought that was really fascinating. And there’s another example near that one where she’s talking about how she stays away from the roast mutton because the goddess hates it, and she says “eat that and she’ll have me bringing it up half the night.” And I thought that was really crazy because that was the first indication we got that this is more than just an emotional or mental or magical connection. That connection is actually physical. Like Oya, you can influence what she actually physically does. Sometimes she influences her actions and other things. So it’s this really, really profound connection between these characters and their goddesses.

Sarah: 15:23 Yeah.

Rachel: 15:24 So on that note, I think we should also talk a little bit about genre, which we’ve, which we’ve touched on several times, but there is so much interesting stuff going on here with genre because it’s really, I don’t think you could easily classify it as one genre. It’s kind of pulling from a lot of different threads in really great way. So, I mean you mentioned, you’ve mentioned fantasy and steampunk of course.

Sarah: 15:47 Yes.

Rachel: 15:48 So I mean we should, we should talk about those. I’ll say really quickly, steampunk for anyone who isn’t very familiar with that genre, it’s a sub genre of SFF usually specifically science fiction and science fantasy. And it traditionally features a historical setting with kind of anachronistic steam powered and mechanical devices rather than, you know, the kind of technology that we would see today. And so there are some really common tropes that can often clue you into that. One of which that we see in this book is air ships. It’s often set in the Victorian era. It’s not in this one, but we definitely get the steam ships for sure.

Sarah: 16:23 Yeah. And it’s sort of part of it. It’s because there was like steam powered stuff at the time, but this is steam powered devices that can do what we have today. Like stuff similar to cars.

Rachel: 16:35 It kind of has the concept of how modern technology would function, but with steam.

Sarah: 16:38 Yeah.

Rachel: 16:39 Not necessarily like, oh yeah, that advanced. But that’s kind of the idea.

Sarah: 16:42 Closer to what we have now than what they had then. So a lot of times you also get something much more similar to like modern warfare in a historic time.

Rachel: 16:51 Yeah.

Sarah: 16:52 Which is something I think we see here.

Rachel: 16:53 Yeah, exactly. You mentioned Shango’s thunder being kind of like that, you know, climate nuke.

Sarah: 16:58 Yeah.

Rachel: 16:58 And, and that, that would fall again a bit more maybe even under the fantasy and where the fantasy is tying into the steam punk elements here because obviously that’s dealing with the Orisha magic

Sarah: 17:10 That’s definitely where you see, right. Cause this is not just like a steam powered weapon. This is a weapon that.

Rachel: 17:16 It’s really a magic powered weapon. I mean we don’t, we don’t get a lot of detail on

Sarah: 17:21 I wouldn’t even say magic.

Rachel: 17:22 Well we, I, I will say we don’t get into detail.

Sarah: 17:24 It seems like it’s pulling from the power of the gods.

Rachel: 17:26 We don’t get detail on what this weapon is or how it functions. We’re just told what it does.

Sarah: 17:30 Yeah.

Rachel: 17:30 So like to me, I am envisioning as being basically a weapon that was given to humans from Shango. You know, so that’s why I say like a magic weapon basically. Um, but we don’t actually know.

Sarah: 17:41 And I might use the word spiritual weapon rather than magic weapon, in like the context of the story.

Rachel: 17:47 Yeah, for sure.

Sarah: 17:48 It’s not your classic steam punk weapon. It’s something different.

Rachel: 17:51 Right. So another sort of genre that this book is obviously pulling from is alternate history, which does often coincide with steam punk, like I mentioned, it’s often set in the Victorian era. Obviously this one is civil war era. And basically alternate histories are exactly what the name implies. It’s a story set in a reimagined past. So, you know, you could get a fantasy book like Dread Nation by Justina Ireland where the civil war is being transformed by a Zombie invasion. Or you could get something like River of Teeth by Sarah Gaily, which imagines the American south and how that might have looked if hippos had been introduced into the Mississippi, which was actually historically proposed to Congress, believe it or not. So obviously in this book we’re getting a story that reimagines a very different outcome of the civil war with you know, a nation divided and an independent New Orleans. And I wanted to go a little bit into kind of where this story is placed in this timeline that Clark has come up with, like how this timeline diverges from ours because the story does kind of touch on it, but I found a really good explanation for it from him in an interview that P. Djèlí Clark did on Los Angeles Public Library’s website.

Sarah: 19:07 Cool.

Rachel: 19:08 So I want to kind of pull a quote from there so people can get a little more background. “So the point of divergence in this world from our world is wrapped up in the Haitian revolution or more precisely what happens when Napoleon Bonaparte sends a fleet in 1801 led by General Charles Leclerc to reestablish control over the colony and arrest slash disarm its black leaders. That effort goes terribly awry in my world. Terribly. I don’t want to give too much away, but it involves a Haitian scientist. [Yes.] With a weather controlling device [Shango’s thunder]. Haiti gets it’s freedom and manages to secure liberation for the rest of the Caribbean. A set of related innovations takes place over the coming century. [So we’re talking to some of the steam punk stuff.] They’re giving the world steam powered air ships and the like. These new inventions alter the global political landscape, including turning the American civil war, which still happens into a stalemate and armistice. If you can imagine that war fought with heavy air power and aerial bombardment. New Orleans escapes a lot of this destruction by becoming a neutral port. It’s freedom enforced by foreign powers, but this is all a precarious existence that could unravel at any moment. Did I mentioned that the weather controlling device has wreaked havoc with the climate? So this world is also a bit Dystopian.” Which brings us into another genre that it draws on, which is a few dystopian elements.

Sarah: 20:21 Yeah.

Rachel: 20:22 Yeah. Because as we’ve touched on a few times, the weather is pretty wack. In this, in this story, the first time Shango’s thunder was used, it just really screwed with the climate. And so now, we know that New Orleans gets these terrible storms periodically that just killed tons and tons and tons of people and have kind of led to, I think, um, you know, we know that there are a lot of street children in New Orleans because I mean obviously Creeper is one and we hear about these kinds of like groups of thieves and gangs and stuff, um, that she’s not a part of but that she knows of and she’s stealing to get by. So, so there’s, it’s clear that even though this is an independent New Orleans that is being protected by these other nations and wasn’t drawn into the civil war, it’s still got problems. And a lot of those are due to the weather.

Sarah: 21:13 Yes.

Rachel: 21:13 So yeah, we definitely, Clark has definitely playing with a lot of different genres there. And I do think that’s part of what makes this book really interesting and successful is how it’s kind of combining all these different things together.

Sarah: 21:25 Yeah. I think it’s fun to merge genres. And this does it particularly well in a way I haven’t really seen before.

Rachel: 21:31 Yeah, it just makes for a much richer world and environment.

Sarah: 21:35 Agreed. Well, I think that just about wraps it up for this episode.

Rachel: 21:39 I think you’re right. A big thank you to Sahara Sky for the use of our theme song Never Long Time Goes By from the album Escapism.

Sarah: 21:46 And thanks for listening. You can get in touch with us by tweeting @unassignedpod over on Twitter or emailing us at unassignedreadingpod at We’d love to hear from you.

Rachel: 21:55 Tweet about the show or leave us a positive review over on iTunes. We’d love to know what you think of this episode or any others.

Sarah: 22:00 You can also find transcripts and links to all our social media at

Rachel: 22:05 And don’t forget to head over to our social media to ask us questions about books or reading or whatever else you want to know.

Sarah: 22:10 We’ll be featuring our favorites in a special anniversary Q and A episode.

Rachel: 22:14 And our next episode of book talk will be on May 10th.

Sarah: 22:17 And speaking of the one year anniversary of our podcast.

Rachel: 22:20 We’ve compiled all the votes, crunched all the numbers, and the book you all picked for the discussion is

Sarah: 22:26 The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang.

Rachel: 22:28 It was really close, but it just barely beat out Sawkill Girls in the final round.

Sarah: 22:33 Just as an fyi, it’s this book is a romance novel with a fun plot, great characters, and some really awesome representation, but it does get pretty racy.

Rachel: 22:43 One could argue it almost borders on erotica.

Sarah: 22:47 Almost, but not quite.

Rachel: 22:48 Regardless, this is a book we both really enjoyed, and we’re excited to dig into it a little deeper on the podcast.

Sarah: 22:54 The episode will come out on May 31st, and we really hope you’ll read along.

Rachel: 22:58 We think it will be the perfect way to celebrate the one year anniversary of Unassigned Reading.

Sarah: 23:02 In the meantime, we leave you with these words of wisdom.

Rachel: 23:05 “…but being strange ain’t no crime, not in New Orleans.”

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