Rambling On

Anthony R. Cardno's Fiction and Commentary

I’m taking a page and title from my friend ‘Nathan Burgione’s blog, and will be posting reviews of short fiction (novellas, novelettes and stories) on Sundays here on the blog. Reviews of novels and non-fiction will appear on Tuesdays, and other types of posts (interviews, updates on my own writing, etc) will appear on Thursdays. At least, that’s the plan going forward.

This week’s Short fiction review is:

 

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.

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For those wondering, YES, the usual interviews will be resuming soon. I’ve got one in queue waiting on me to send some follow-up questions, and I sent another 2 sets of questions out today. They’re coming, promise!

But first, some personal news I need to share:

Beyond The Sun conceptual cover art

So as usual for a Wednesday, #sffwrtcht started at 9pm tonight on Twitter. #sffwrtcht is a weekly thing, with a rotating series of science fiction, fantasy and horror authors as guests. This week’s guest was my friend Damien Walters Grintalis, whose novel INK, about a tattoo job gone wrong in a horrific way, just came out. Damien tuckerized me into her story “Scarred” for Fireside magazine last year, too. A few minutes into the chat stream, moderator and friend Bryan Thomas Schmidt shoots me a private message on Facebook. “Damien and I both have big announcements to make at the end of chat, so stick around.” Because he knows I sometimes get distracted by 19 other things going on and forget to check back to the chat.  I figured he was going to announce he’d pitched another anthology idea, or something like that.

Near the end of chat, he slips this in: “I’d like to announce that #sffwrtcht regulars @talekyn & @jaleta_clegg have sold stories to #BeyondTheSun anthology.”

Well, THAT took me by surprise.

I knew Bryan liked my story “Chasing Satellites” enough to ask me to do a rewrite and hone it before the final submission deadline rather than reject it outright. But I honestly thought, with the deadline just passed, that it would be a week or so before he made any final decisions.

This is my first semi-pro sale, at the four-cents-a-word rate Bryan quoted when he funded the book through Kickstarter in the fall. Bryan gave me my first book anthology unpaid sale in 2012, with “A Battle For Parantwer” in SPACE BATTLES. Before “Chasing Satellites,” every story I’ve published has been recompensed with copies of the book or magazine.  A semi-pro sale apparently isn’t enough to earn me credits towards membership in the Science Fiction Writers Association, but it is a large step in the right direction, and of course a HUGE boost to my writer’s ego.

A number of you reading this donated to Brian’s Kickstarter for BEYOND THE SUN because you knew if the project was funded and IF my story was accepted (and there was never any guarantee it would be), it would mean a lot to me on a personal level. I explained why in this post. And so now that my story has been accepted … I cannot thank those of you who backed the project enough. If the project hadn’t funded, all of this would be moot.

BEYOND THE SUN will be out from Fairwood Press in mid-July 2013.  I’ll be appearing beside my hero Robert Silverberg, as well as greats like Mike Resnick, Nancy Kress, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Jennifer Brozek, Jason Sanford, Autumn Rachel Dryden, and my friends Jaleta Clegg and Maurice Broaddus, in a book edited by my friend and mentor Bryan Thomas Schmidt. I’m honored to be alongside all of them…

…. but dude, I’m gonna be in a book with ROBERT FREAKIN’ SILVERBERG.

 

Oh, and I owe a shout-out to singer-songwriter Thomas Fiss, as well. I promised him I’d write a short story based on the title track of his latest EP, and this is it! Thanks for the inspiration, Thomas!

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This week’s interview, delayed from last week due to lots of personal circumstances, is with Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon, the editors of Apex Publications’ DARK FAITH and DARK FAITH: INVOCATIONS.

Jason Sizemore, Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon

ANTHONY: Before we talk about the new book you’ve co-edited, DARK FAITH: INVOCATIONS, I’d like to talk about the experience of putting together the first DARK FAITH anthology. How did that come about, and what did you learn from that process that influenced your work on the new volume?

MAURICE:  I host an annual convention called Mo*Con (http://www.mocon.indianahorror.org/).  Each year I invite a few horror, science fiction, and fantasy writers in, we hold the convention in a church, and we discuss topics related to genre and faith.  You tell people you’re having a convention in a church, all they hear is “church” and, again, there are preconceptions to what goes on there.  With the great line up of writers that we have regularly attending Mo*Con, we talked with Jason Sizemore, of Apex Books, about doing a Mo*Con anthology.  That project evolved into Dark Faith.  I guess you could say that I’ve always been fascinated with hearing people’s stories about faith, no matter where that story takes them.

I think every writer should take a turn behind the slush pile to see what an editor faces every day.  From the lack of professionalism, the inability to follow guidelines, to the ideas/stories they see all the time.  That was my first major take away lesson.  The second was that after we put together the original Dark Faith, we had a better idea of what kind of stories we were looking for.  Our writers did also, which was reflected in the (much better) slush pile.

JERRY:  Mo*Con gives people with wildly divergent views a place to discuss controversial issues.  The respect for ideas and emphasis on civil discourse at the heart of the convention went a long way toward winning me over when Maurice brought up the idea of doing Dark Faith together.

ANTHONY: What is the focus of DARK FAITH: INVOCATIONS, and does it differ at all from the intent or theme of the first volume?

MAURICE:  The focus honed in even more on the idea of faith.  That being said, I think the second volume is lighter in tone overall, even as it is still soul crushing.

Dark Faith 2: Invocations

JERRY:  Invocations is tightly focused on the testing of faith from a broad variety of belief systems (atheism to magic and everything organized in between).  The book does have more fun with the subject.  Imagine hunting giant Buddhas in a post-apocalyptic future or learning the secrets of the universe from a wish-granting vending machine.

ANTHONY: You held an open call for submissions for INVOCATIONS, correct? How many submissions did you receive, and how long did it take to whittle the slush down to your final choices?

JERRY:  We received just over seven hundred total submissions, enough to fill twenty-six anthologies.  It took about four months to whittle that avalanche down to a final table of contents.  From a process perspective, we went through four rounds of cuts:

Round 1 – Top 150 stories

Round 2 – Top 75 stories

Round 3 – Top 40 stories

Round 4 – Final 26 stories

The first round involved weeding out the amateur, semi-pro, and off-topic stories.  Once the easy cuts were made, thematic overlap, space constraints, and a whole host of editorial issues guided the rest.  I posted a detailed deconstruction of the process on my website (http://www.jerrygordon.net/2012/06/01/behind-the-scenes-dark-faith-2/).

ANTHONY: You’ve co-edited both volumes. What is your process for deciding the final Table of Contents and then story order? Have there been any violent disagreements? (I’m picturing Editor-Dome in Maurice’s living room right now…)

MAURICE:  The first time around was a lot easier.  The stories that worked REALLY worked and stood out from the rest.  This time around, there were so many GREAT stories that it was a lot tougher to get that final pool cut.  I really feel like at times we were team captains and we were choosing up members of our side until we hit our word count limit.  This whole process was made easier by judicious application of Riesling.  Another place where Riesling is your friend is in figuring out the order.  It becomes a lot easier to see a flow to the stories…

JERRY:  We had forty stories left when we met to decide the final table of contents.  We played with half a dozen potential approaches, discussing the merits of each story and how they might work in concert.  In the end, we took turns drafting stories like NFL players.  With each round we recalculated the word count, talked about the remaining stories, and made another round of picks.  The last few rounds were positively heart wrenching.  This is a small business, and putting on the editor’s hat means disappointing talented writers that also happen to be good friends.

ANTHONY: Do your individual editing styles differ when you’re working on an anthology of your own? What do you each bring to the table as co-editors?

MAURICE:  I do quite a bit of freelance editing, but my style doesn’t really change.  I’m looking for the best stories, ideas that intrigue me, or some ineffable quality that makes a story great.

I like to think that I bring a particular vision to Dark Faith.  It’s a project that’s close to my heart and who I am.

JERRY:  On the first book, Maurice set the initial vision and worked very hard to solicit a cadre of amazing writers.  I honed that vision and handled the logistics.  This time around we traded duties back and forth, stepping in for each other when our schedules turned from busy to insane.

Maurice Broaddus

ANTHONY: I won’t ask you each to pick a favorite story from INVOCATIONS, but I will ask what authors we can expect to see in the book and if there’s anything in particular you think will stun readers.

MAURICE:  “Subletting God’s Head” by Tom Piccirilli kind of sets the tone for this volume (which is why it is first) then “The Cancer Catechism” by Jay Lake immediately rips your heart out.  “Magdala Amygdala” demonstrates that there is something fundamentally wrong with Lucy A. Snyder (I kid because I love).  And “A Strange Form of Life” by Laird Barron is a particular favorite of mine (I’m not scared to choose a favorite child!)

JERRY:  Readers are almost universally surprised by the broad range of stories and ideology.  An Asian artist that can reshape reality with her sketches.  A middle-eastern robot fighting his addiction to a futuristic drug called faith.  African folk magic and family rivalries mixing it up in the boxing ring.  A small-town boutique that offers you the chance to shop for your own personal god.  I could go on.  It’s an eclectic mix of tones and worldviews.

As for personal favorites, I love Richard Wright’s “The Sandfather.”  This story sneaks up on you emotionally, and I’ve already had several reviewers email me to say the story blew them away.  The subtle beauty of Alma Alexander’s “Night Train” also impresses.  Looking at the table of contents, I want to hijack this interview so I can talk about Kyle S. Johnson’s haunting portrayal of a North Korean family and Tim Pratt’s wishful fantasy and K. Tempest Bradford’s take on mythology.

ANTHONY: Are there any authors who have work in both volumes, or was that something you consciously avoided?

MAURICE:  The answer’s a little bit of both.  We didn’t want to completely overlap TOCs, but we didn’t want to rule out great stories from writers who have already demonstrated that they get what we’re looking for.  I think we set some arbitrary percentage of how many authors could repeat (which we probably ignored, thus I can’t remember what it was).

JERRY:  We went into the book hoping to bring about a third of the original authors back.  Maurice and I solicited a second third and dove into the slush pile to find the remaining stories.

ANTHONY: What else would you like potential readers to know about INVOCATIONS?

MAURICE:  You need to buy many copies of it and pass them out to your friends.

JERRY:  This book will entertain you, make you think, and magically remove ten pounds from your waistline.

ANTHONY: What’s in the near future for each of you?

MAURICE:  My urban fantasy trilogy, The Knights of Breton Court, is being re-released as an omnibus (by Angry Robot Books).  I have a short story in the current issue of Shroud Magazine and have stories coming out in a bunch of upcoming anthologies (Appalachian Undead, The New Hero, Vampires Don’t Sparkle, Relics and Remains, and Cadence in Decay).  My short story, “Awaiting Redemption”, will be in the HorrorWorld Anthology as well as available for a listen on Pseudopod.com.  Apex Books will also be publishing my novella, I Can Transform You.

Jerry Gordon

JERRY:  My apocalyptic novella, Breaking The World, is set to be released in 2013 (Apex Publications).  It follows a trio of teenagers forced into adulthood by the end of the world.  I also have a short story out in the current issue of Shroud called “Ghost in the Machine.”  In it third-party politics, torture bans, and a mysterious ‘Ghost Program’ conspire to change the course of our Republic.  Add to that “Vampire Nation” for the forthcoming Vampires Don’t Sparkle! tribute anthology (Seventh Star).

ANTHONY: And my usual closing question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to someone who hasn’t read it yet to convince them that they should? 

MAURICE:  The Gift by Patrick O’Leary, Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, and Beloved (heck, anything) by Toni Morrison.  If I have to convince you to read any of them, especially Morrison, I’ll just pluck out your eyes because you obviously aren’t doing anything worthwhile with them anyway.

JERRY:  Talk about your impossible questions!  My brain freezes just trying to come up with a top ten list.  I can’t give you a favorite, so I’ll just give you a recommendation.  The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.  The book, given to me during a rough patch in my life, contains a lifetime of wisdom.  I’ve purchased several copies for friends over the years.

ANTHONY: Thanks again to you both!

 

You can purchase DARK FAITH: INVOCATIONS through Amazon, Barnes & Noble or directly from Apex Publications. On Twitter, you can follow @MauriceBroaddus and @jerrylgordon. You can also keep track of the authors/editors on Maurice’s website and Jerry’s website, and they’re both on Facebook: Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon.

 

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