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Buffalo Soldier by 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.
Alternate history tends to focus in on a couple of lynchpins; the American Revolution, the Second World War, the collapse of the Roman Empire. It’s rarer to see an alternate history that doesn’t make its point(s) of divergence explicit, or that so strangely combines the alternative and the historical in its worldbuilding, as Buffalo Soldier.

Broaddus’ worldbuilding is key to the novella, after all. Set in a steampunk present where the British Empire, under the name Albion, never lost the North American colonies, but where Jamaica became a major world power and where Native American tribes successfully resisted British occupation beyond the original thirteen colonies, Buffalo Soldier has a lot of history and politics to convey. It’s unfortunate that most of this is done in the form of three separate infodumps; they’re very much “Here is the history of this world”, not so much from the point of view of a particular people on a set of events as simply the events themselves, since the infodumps don’t overlap.

This approach also infects the narrative of the novel in other ways; Buffalo Soldier repeatedly has clunky moments where things which are implied are then spelled out a line later, as if Broaddus doesn’t trust the reader to make the leap, or where things are restated repeatedly just to ensure they’re noticed. This isn’t helped by a narrative chronology that isn’t ever very clear: while the plot is strictly linear, how long certain things take is never made explicit, and the whole stretch of time over which the backstory to the plot and the plot itself, let alone the points at which it jumps in time, is terribly murky.

That plot is a relatively simple one, though Broaddus does make its political implications clear. Buffalo Soldier is a novella about colonialism, about power, about international relations, and about a peculiarly Anglophone approach to control; but it tells this story through a mix of industrial espionage, mutual suspicion, and Desmond’s quest to save Lij. The writing is at its best in action scenes; they have a blunt immediacy, and a really gripping sense of speed and violence, that grabs the mind, along with a quality that makes the reader feel it might have been written for the screen.

Where Buffalo Soldier really saves itself is with its characters. Broaddus gives us a very compact cast; Desmond, Lij, Cayt, and later Inteus and Kajika. Each of them is very distinct, and comes from a different cultural background, whether free Jamaica, Albion, or the Seminole. Desmond is our main character, and his whole narrative arc is really well conveyed, with his mix of internal moral turmoil, mixed feelings about what he’s doing, and sense of his lost home; Broaddus conveys both his angst and his need to push through it to protect Lij excellently. Lij’s own characterisation as someone with what we’d now probably describe as autism is a really sensitive, intelligent piece of writing that never lays the point on too thick but also doesn’t back down from that part of his character.

Buffalo Soldiers has a lot of interesting ideas, but Broaddus really needed a bigger canvas to lay them all out, rather than condensing them into a novella, and a smoother hand at setting up his world. Fantastic characters and great action scenes aren’t enough to hang a novella on when what comes between those scenes is so uneven.

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