Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus. ★★★1/2
Buffalo Soldier is a steampunk style novella that had a fun world but might have benefited from more focus on plot and characters.
Former secret agent Desmond Coke is on the run from his own government, who are hunting him after he rescued a boy, Lij Tafari, they were keeping and using for their own ends. There’s something special about Lij. Something that’s making the government of Jamaica desperate to reattain him, and Desmond and Lij will be pursued no matter where they flee.
I often end up having problems with steampunk. I think too often steampunk stories are more about the steampunk aesthetic, and they focus on the aesthetic to such an extent that plot and/or characters are neglected. I think that was true here. The focus on world building sometimes came at the expense of Buffalo Solider’s plot and characters.
But, oh, what wonderful world building it was. I think the timeline of Buffalo Solider is relatively close to our analogous modern era — I think Clinton is mentioned? However, the world developed along very different paths. Jamaica is a world power, known for their scientific might. The states are still colonies of Great Britain. The West coast is its own country, where Native Americans held their ground against Western expansion and are more technologically advanced than many of the other countries, bringing a bit of solarpunk in alongside the steampunk. The Republic of Texas is still around, although it’s more dieselpunk than steampunk. As Desmond and Lij are pursued, we get to see different parts of the world Broaddus created, and I never ceased to enjoy these bits of alternate history.
Although I felt the plot could have been better developed, I really loved the core concept. It’s just so inventive and outrageous! I don’t want to give to much away, but the answer to “Who is Lij?” is brilliant. Unfortunately, I don’t think it always lived up to the great concept. The beginning was really strong, but then the pacing slowed down substantially in the second half. I thought the ending was a lot more vague than I would have liked, even if it avoided being a complete cliffhanger.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the narrative structure of Buffalo Solider, since it is a bit unusual. It uses a story within a story format, but again, I’m not sure how I felt about the execution. I think I would have preferred to see either much more of these stories within stories (especially if they relate to each other in interesting ways) or fewer than there were.
Honestly, I think the biggest problem is that there’s just not a whole lot of room in a novella. Buffalo Solider ended up feeling thin, and it may have benefited from more page space, where it could have more room to explore its wonderful setting and still develop plot and characters.