Desmond Coke fled Jamaica with his former comrades hot on his heels. He must cross an alternate America, where the Free Republic of Tejas, the Albion Empire and the Five Civilized Tribes may all offer sanctuary – or may seek to take advantage of the rare opportunity Desmond’s young ward Lij represents…
Buffalo Soldier is one of those stories that plunges you straight into a situation – Desmond, navigating the wilds with Lij – with no preamble and little context, and then leaves you to catch up as it develops. This is always a risk, needing to strike a balance between emerging events and sharing just enough background along the way to make sense of them.
No sooner have we met our protagonists than they arrive in Abandon, Tejas (ten out of ten for evocative names), encounter a racist redneck, the big man about town and a provocative young lady (I use the term loosely). So far, so very Wild West – but this is where I began to struggle with cognitive dissonance.
Without much in the way of context, I realised at this point that the only reason I assumed this was a 19th century setting was the cover art and the steampunk trimmings. This is surely on me and my very limited knowledge of American and Jamaican history – but even by the end of Buffalo Soldier (especially given the tech base in Wewoka) I couldn’t have told you with any certainty when it was meant to be set (although post-read Googling seems to confirm early 19th century).
It’s not a big deal, but it’s the sort of thing that really bothers me. The consequence was that I spent far too much time worrying about the wrong things, and never really settled in to the story.
In my defence, the story itself is slight, as are the characters. I never really warmed to Desmond, who remains quite flat, although I rather liked Lij (never explicitly described as autistic, but certainly atypical). Cayt the “private consultant” is belatedly given the thinnest of motivations; while she has a lot of flair, she’s a fairly disappointing antagonist. The Seminole leader Kajika and her husband Inteus are more interesting, but I couldn’t escape the feeling I was projecting more dimensions on to them (Kajika in particular) than their exposition-heavy dialogue really deserved.
Because when we do finally get the context we need, it’s sadly always in the form of exposition dumps. In Abandon, Hearst regales Desmond and Cayt with a recap of recent history they can’t possibly be unaware of – the story creaking to a halt while he catches the readers up; in Wewoka, Kajika does much the same thing. Desmond is a political agent on the run; he knows all these things already. While there’s an argument for Hearst monologuing in traditional villainous style to show Desmond he’s got his number, it just feels clunky.
It’s a shame, because the world-building is fascinating. This is a really intriguing alternate history, where the British Empire hung on to her American colonies but lost control of Jamaica in the Maroon Wars; where Texas has remained belligerently independent; and where the indigenous tribes withdrew from the eastern states to fortify the West against the white man. It makes for two powerful political blocs of colour balanced against the ongoing incursions of the expansionist Imperials, and sets up an interesting political balance.
Ultimately, while I was intrigued by its more interesting-than-usual ingredients, Buffalo Soldier has done nothing to convince me that I should soften my stance on steampunk (which, full disclosure, I usually avoid – I’m not interested in the tech, and the aesthetic only works for me in visual media). This is a passable story, but it felt more like an introduction to a world, leaving me slightly confused and ultimately disengaged.