Title: Buffalo Solider
Author: Maurice Broaddus
Having stumbled onto a plot within his homeland of Jamaica, former espionage agent, Desmond Coke, finds himself caught between warring religious and political factions, all vying for control of a mysterious boy named Lij Tafari.
Wanting the boy to have a chance to live a free life, Desmond assumes responsibility for him and they flee. But a dogged enemy agent remains ever on their heels, desperate to obtain the secrets held within Lij for her employer alone.
Assassins, intrigue, and steammen stand between Desmond and Lij as they search for a place to call home in a North America that could have been.
“I have a story. We have a story and our story demands respect.”
For me this is the central theme and concern of this novella. As well as telling a story we have characters telling tales of their own, both because there is power in them and because they deserve to be told. Stories have such power because they express ideas, and it is ideas that are able to change the world. This could seem a pretentious notion, but here it seems the most natural part of the world Broaddus has created.
This world is very much one designed to explore these concepts. It is not really a “what if?” scenario or a complex alternative history: elements of our timeline are included or disregarded for the purpose of making points about Black and First Nation history. For example, the presidents of the USA appear more or less identical to the ones elected historically but instead serve as regents, although then some are removed when they are seen as bad for business interests.
The world building is done in very much a mixed manner. There are some times when this very different flavour of steampunk is done in a clever subtle manner, such as:
“Marveling at the mechanical horses as they trotted along, Desmond hadn’t seen such craftsmanship since leaving Jamaica.”
At other times it will be a character monologuing for pages about the history of this person or that region. And whilst the technological and spiritual elements are conceived in depth, the political situations often left me scratching my head. In many cases it is necessary to accept Albion as an amorphous epitome of evil rather than trying to understand the reason behind any of the setup. For me, the last point is more a reflection of the kind of story this is: one of ideas rather than scenarios. That is not to say there is not some real beauty to the aesthetic being used by Broaddus as this is a place of steam and shadows, with regular clever contrast of light and dark in the scenes being painted. It is just for me, this is secondary to the ideas being explored by the writer, for he mixes in imperialism, power, religion and race, themes which are all too absent from many steampunk stories.
The key trio of characters are also well conceived and can be considered as one of the key reasons I was pulled along this journey. Desmond and Cayt are both super-competent secret agents pursuing Lij but the key difference between them is Desmond is driven by a great moral sense whilst Cayt is driven by much more mercenary motivations. Occasionally they can seem unknowable due to how highly skilled and determined they are but this is resolved by the telling of stories. For it is in these narratives we really a get a glimpse into them both. As for Lij himself, even though he could easily be purely a plot device as he goes through the story and learns about the world we are able to watch him grow.
Buffalo Soldier is a fascinating novella which creates a world quite unlike the one you expect it to be, but all too familiar to our own. With interesting characters and brimming with ideas, it is a great journey. Just be prepared, this may not be the story you were expecting; rather one that needs to be told.
Reviewer: Kris Vyas-Myall