Maurice Broaddus’ utterly fantastic PoC steampunk Buffalo Soldier opens with Desmond Coke on the run with his young charge, Lij Tafari. Having absconded with the boy from Jamaica to Albion to the Free Republic of Tejas, their next step is to cross through the strongly defended territory of the Assembly of the First Nations and thence to sanctuary and liberty in Canada.
When they hole up in a Tejas town called Abandon, Desmond’s plan goes pear shaped. He may be a former servant-turned-spy, but he and Lij’s dark skin and Jamaican accents puts them in the crosshairs of Albion industrialist Garrison Hearst, gun-toting Tejan Cayt Siringo, Niyabingi rebels, Maroon Rastafarians, and the technologically advanced Seminole. Everyone wants to capture Lij and use him for their own nefarious purposes. Desmond swore to protect Lij at all costs, but that may not be an oath he’s able to keep. With his cane-sword in one hand Lij in the other, Desmond will have to fight for Lij’s survival like he’s never fought before. Only the boy matters, now.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the shift in art and pop culture criticism and how the insistence on or rejection of social justice (or at least “wokeness”) has recently become a part of the job. You can’t talk comics anymore without discussing diversity/inclusion and the interplay with market demand. Same goes for all other forms of entertainment. Accusations of whitewashing and the pushback against those accusations, the calls for more diverse casts and crew and the entrenchment of old school creators, the groundswell for new voices telling new stories and the gatekeeping of tradition. It’s happening across platforms and media, but is especially prevalent (virulent?) in science fiction and fantasy. It all comes down to what kind of entertainment we want to consume, or, in other words, what we want our entertainment to be. Do we want cotton candy storytelling or something with substance? Can we have both simultaneously and in the same work of art? Is the role of the critic to comment on a work’s meaning or lack thereof? Should it be?
Honestly, I don’t know the answers to those questions, nor do I think there even are “right” or “wrong” answers to begin with. However, I also believe that it’s my job as a critic to both discuss how a work presents itself craftwise and give potential consumers enough information to decide whether or not to engage with that art. And a major factor in that decision, at least for me, is how art does or does not handle diversity, representation, and inclusion, and why. Other reviewers might be able to segregate social consciousness and critique, but I cannot and will not. For me, the two are intrinsically intertwined. I feel it is my responsibility to call out art that resists representation, either through the creator or the art itself, and to praise art that celebrates diversity and has thoughtful social discourse.
Ages ago I made a personal choice to give preference to watching and reading entertainment inherently and explicitly diverse; there are only so many hours in the day and I’d rather spend what little free time I have with inclusive entertainment. I don’t need the umpteenth story about a rich, cishet white dude saving the day when there are an increasing number of diverse options with more compelling characters and stories. In practice, it means I rarely watch or read anything dominated by “traditional” casts and/or crew. Although this isn’t a hard and fast rule, it’s worked out pretty damn well for me in terms of expanding my entertainment diet and helping promote art by marginalized voices. Which is precisely why the second I read the description Maurice Broaddus’ Buffalo Soldier I requested to review it. It sounded like everything I’ve ever wanted from steampunk but never got, and I was eager, nay desperate, for it to live up to my already high expectations. It did. And then some.
Buffalo Soldier is a story about stories. The stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell others, stories that hold our history and culture, stories that help us find our place in the world. Just as Desmond uses Maroon mythology to keep Lij grounded in his past, so too does Broaddus in using the science fiction genre as a tool for exploring the philosophies and social mores of the real world. It’s not just a steampunk novella with a majority Black and brown cast. Through the genre lens, Broaddus comments on the real world. Racism, white privilege, the uniquely white American form of conquest and domination (i.e.: Manifest Destiny), and intersectional feminism all get play. Power – who has it, who doesn’t, those who use it to exploit and abuse others, and those who fight back against it – is the name of the game.
It’s telling that the villains of the piece are white and the heroes PoC; that the main antagonist is a poor woman who falsely believes the wealthy white man who employs her has her best interests at heart; and that the most vulnerable people are the ones who see the world as it really is and can navigate it better than the comfortable and protected. Cayt’s ethnicity is not specified, but given that her surname is Italian she’s likely at least part-white, which reframes her role from a female Pinkerton agent in a predominately male environment to a white woman who finds professional success through the exploitation of people of color.
The interplay of race, gender identity and roles, class, privilege, imperialism, and colonization is encapsulated beautifully in this exchange between Kajika, leader of the Seminole branch of the the First Nations, or the Real People, as they call themselves, and Cayt Siringo (who I assume was inspired by real Pinkerton agents Charlie Siringo and Kate Warne). Cayt’s employer, a rich industrialist, is interested in acquiring Indigenous technology, and Kajika is rightfully suspicious.
“So he proposes what? A partnership?”
“Assuming you don’t want to sell the patents outright.”
“Our culture is not for sale. And you don’t patent nature.”
“You and your techno-shamans just run around giving everything away for free?”
“Techno-shamans? Seriously? Where do you people get your intel? Pulp novels?” Kajika rolled her eyes. There was a slight exasperation before she spoke again, slowly, as if repeating an explanation to a child. “We call them engineers. It’s from the Navajo meaning…engineers.”
Buffalo Soldier is technically a sequel to Broaddus’ short story Steppin’ Razor, published in Asimov’s back in 2014, which in turn was inspired by a short story he wrote in 2009, Pimp My Airship. Since Buffalo Soldier was written as a standalone, it isn’t necessary to read the first before the second. I didn’t even know it was a sequel until I started doing research for this review. Rather, it felt like I was diving into a vast world of which I was only seeing a small slice, but not in a disorienting way.
While it doesn’t totally feel like being dropped into the middle of another story, it’s obvious a tremendous amount of time was spent on worldbuilding. Desmond and Lij are pieces of several interconnected puzzles but it also isn’t necessary to understand the whole history of this world to know why everyone is chasing them or why Tejas and the Civilized Tribes are at each other’s throats. Broaddus gives the reader all the information needed for this particular story without it coming off as incomplete. TL;DR: You don’t need to have read any previous entries in Broaddus’ steampunk world (although I highly recommend doing so) in order to understand what’s going on in Buffalo Soldier.
My only potential concern with Buffalo Soldier is Lij. Broaddus never explicitly labels the boy as on the autism spectrum, but it is strongly implied. From what I could tell, Lij doesn’t fall prey to the magical disability trope. None of the characters mock him for his neurological differences, and they regularly accommodate his needs. To me, as one of the only Black autistic protagonists I’ve ever seen in SFF, Lij is a refreshing and welcoming character. That being said, because of my bias as a neurotypical person, I’ll defer to autistic or spectrum voices as to whether or not Lij truly is respectful representation.
Maurice Broaddus is an extremely prolific author, and that skill is on full display in Buffalo Soldier. Each character has a distinct and unique voice, the action is crisp and vivid, and the narration romantic and poetic. It’s a gorgeous, haunting novella set in a violent, disturbing world with values not so different from ours.
Buffalo Soldier is a firestorm of a story, a ponderous, explosive exploration of an alternate America told from the perspectives of those often left out of such narratives. At only 148 pages, you have no excuse for not reading this amazing novella. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go jam out to Bob Marley while sending shout-y tweets at publishers to hire Broaddus to write a whole series of books about Desmond and Lij. I need a full-length trilogy like you wouldn’t believe.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.