TITLE: Buffalo Soldier
AUTHOR: Maurice Broaddus
144 pages, Tor.com Publishing, paperback and e-book formats, ISBN 978-0765394293
DESCRIPTION: 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.
MY RATING: FIVE out of FIVE STARS
MY THOUGHTS: It’s no secret I’m a fan of Maurice Broaddus’ work. I loved his “Knights of Breton Court” modern-day-urban take on the Arthurian mythos. I loved most of the stories in his recent short story collection “Voices of the Martyrs,” and even the stories I didn’t love I at least liked. I suppose eventually he’ll write something I don’t enjoy, but this novella is not that time.
In novellas, as with short stories, the author cannot spend a great deal of time describing the setting and history: the action needs to grip the reader and propel us along just as quickly as in a short story. But it is clear Broaddus’ world-building for Buffalo Soldier is complete and massively detailed. The reader gets just enough historical detail to glean that the American Revolution failed while Jamaican independence was successful, and that what we know as the United States is divided into three main regions: Albion, ruled over by Regents of the British government; Tejas (Texas and environs); and the Six Civilized Nations (various native tribes, occupying fortified holdings in the west after being forced out of the east). The novella is set in what feels like the present day, or close to it. The politics and history that led to these divisions is hinted at with carefully placed familiar names and locations from our own history. The technological world-building is equally hinted at throughout the book, quick glimpses of steam-based weaponry and transportation tiding us over until a key reveal.
But it’s the characters that draw the readers into this world and keep us there; Desmond Coke, Lij Tafari, and the mysterious Cayt Siringo. Coke’s world-weariness is palpable in the early pages and deepens as the story progresses: he knows he’s doing the right thing for Lij, even though it has meant leaving behind everything he knows, and yet he still questions whether he’s doing the right thing. The questioning and the willingness to do what’s right despite the danger it puts him in makes Desmond Coke our point of view into the history and the ensuing action. He finds some, if not all, of the answers he’s seeking as things progress. And while he’s the main point of view character, he’s not the character who pulls the majority of the reader’s attention.
That character would be the quiet, if not always controlled, Lij Tafari. Lij’s innocence is the counterpoint to Coke’s not-quite cynicism. Coke understands the way the political world affects where he can travel with Lij; Lij has no understanding of, or interest in, how the world works outside of his immediate interactions with it. Coke’s (and later, Cayt’s) handling of Lij hinges on their understanding of where this innocence comes from. While the word itself is never used, it is clear from his dialogue and his actions that Lij is autistic. Lij’s autism is as much a story point as Coke’s depression or Cayt’s cunning or the parental protectiveness of supporting characters Inteus and Kajika: that is to say, it’s important when it’s important, and not belabored when it’s not. It’s so easy for authors to portray autism as a character deficit, to have other characters talk down to the autistic character or treat them as less than human, or to treat it as a series of disconnected tics. Broaddus spectacularly fails to fall into any of these traps: his portrayal of Lij and of how Coke and others interact with him, perfectly matches the functional autistic kids, and parents of same, that I know.
Ultimately, “Buffalo Soldier” is about stories: the stories we tell others, the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we draw on to survive and move on. Early on, the stories are all in bits of dialogue: Coke bending the truth of his and Lij’s identity in order to survive crossing Tejas, for instance. Near the half-way point, we are dropped wholesale into the tales and legends the characters tell Lij to keep him moving or to keep him calm. Here, Broaddus’ skill as a teller of tales-within-stories really shines: the rhythm and level of detail changes with each teller.
This novella could be a done-in-one: all of the major plot and sub-plots are resolved (some bloodily so, but then again, there’s no shortage of violence throughout). But I’m really hoping we’ve not seen the end of Desmond Coke, Lij Tafari, their friends and their enemies. There’s so much more to explore.