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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This week my guest is Andrew P. Mayer, author of the steampunk-meets-superheroics trilogy THE SOCIETY OF STEAM.

Andrew P. Mayer

 

Andrew Mayer was born on the tiny island of Manhattan, and is still fascinated by their strange customs and simple ways. When he’s not writing new stories he works as a videogame designer and digital entertainment consultant. Over the years he has has created numerous concepts, characters, and worlds including the original Dogz and Catz digital pets. These days he resides in Oakland, CA where he spends too much time on the internet, and not enough time playing his ukulele. (from the author’s website)

 

 

 

 

ANTHONY:  Andrew, thanks for taking the time to chat with me.

ANDREW:  Thanks for having me!

ANTHONY: With The Falling Machine, the first book in The Society of Steam trilogy, you were described as basically the closest thing we’ve got to “What if the Silver Age of Comics happened in the 1800s?”  Did praise like that (Clay and Susan Griffiths even compared you to Stan Lee) put any pressure on you during the writing of the second book?

ANDREW:  Writing on the second book had been completed by the time the first one came out. Between January and May it seemed like everything was happening almost at the same time, with copy edits, and whatnot. It was all a blur to me, especially since I’d never published a novel before.

But the pressure on the third has been huge. I definitely read my reviews, and as a game developer I’m always trying to figure out how I can respond to my audience.

A lot of writers say you should ignore all that, but it’s interesting when you find someone has a criticism of your work that you find yourself agreeing with, and it makes me want to respond.

Ultimately though, it’s all about finishing.

 

Hearts of Smoke and Steam (Society of Steam, Book 2)

ANTHONY:  Hearts of Smoke and Steam, the second book, is now available. Where does the action pick up in relation to the end of the first book?

ANDREW:  It starts out a few months after the events of Book One, with Sarah Stanton trying to pull together her life and figuring out how to rebuild the Automaton after she’s run away. Unfortunately for her the consequences of looking to find someone who could rebuild Tom have left her more vulnerable than she realizes.

ANTHONY:  From the way The Falling Machine ended, it was pretty clear that Society of Steam is a fully intentional trilogy, rather than what Jay Lake recently described as an accidental one (where a book does so well, the publisher says, “let’s give the public a couple more”). Was your publisher on board from the beginning for a first book that ended with a cliffhanger, or was there any discussion of making it work as a stand-alone just in case sales weren’t good enough to support a sequel?

ANDREW:  It’s funny but I get a lot of people complaining about the cliffhanger. For me it seems thematically clean—Sarah has made a journey. But I can see why some folks are upset that it ended the way it did…

The series was originally intended as two novels. Honestly I had never completed one before I started, so there was some hubris in thinking I’d even be able to write two. But then, near the end of 2010 I called Lou and asked if we could do a third one, as I’d written four fifths of the novel, and had only just reached the big battle at the end. He was all for it, and lo, a trilogy was born!

 

ANTHONY:  Did you take any kind of break between writing books one and two? And if so, did you work on anything else in between?

ANDREW:  I took a sort of break. I had fully intended to work on some other things during that time, but my life as I knew it was sort of collapsing, so that ended up taking a lot of my time. I did manage to start putting a plan together for what I wanted to do next, and I’m hoping to start working on those things the moment book three is wrapped up!

 

The Falling Machine (Society of Steam, Book 1)

ANTHONY:  I’ve described The Falling Machine to friends as a mystery with two detectives: Sarah Stanton has the more straightforward search for Dennis Darby’s killer, and then there’s the Sleuth’s back-alley attempt to pull the bigger picture together. Does Hearts of Smoke and Stone have a similar structure?

ANDREW:  Hearts trades in the detective mystery for more of an action/romance plot. In the first book Sarah was looking for trouble, and in the second book she’s found it!

But there are some similarities. I’d say that Anubis picks up the baton that the Sleuth drops in book one, and he gives us some insights into the Children of Eschaton.

ANTHONY:  Speaking of The Sleuth, I absolutely adored the little glimpses we got of the relationship between him and Dennis Darby.  Is there any chance we’ll see their history developed throughout the second and third books?

ANDREW:  You’re not the only one who has told me that he wants to see more of them. We do get some more glimpses into their past, but not to the same degree. It really becomes the tale of the next generation going forwards.

That said, I’m not done with Darby and Wickham yet. With a little luck, I’ll be putting out more of their adventures before the end of 2012.

 ANTHONY:  How long do you anticipate it will take to complete the final chapter? And will that be it for these characters and this fun world you’ve created? Or is there the possibility of more stories beyond the trilogy?

ANDREW:  Forever? No, wait… Two or three months.
I’m writing furiously, but the story has been wanting to grow even as I’m heading towards the finish line, so I’ve needed to replot a little bit to get it to where I want it.

The goal now is to get a draft down as soon as possible and have the manuscript in the my editor’s hands sometime in March.

As for more: yes, definitely.

ANTHONY:  That makes this reader very happy.  In general, what is your writing process like? And how, if at all, has it changed over the course of the books?

ANDREW:  Outline, write-write-write, revise outline, write-write-write, revise outline, etc until done. That worked really well for the first two books, but I experimented with some different tools and methods when I started book 3, mostly because I wanted to see if I could improve things a bit. After a few months I realized that it wasn’t working out for me, and I went back to my previous process.

I also think that getting a good ending demands that I replot. I always want to be expanding, and at some point to get to the end you need to start drilling down. It’s been an interesting challenge.

ANTHONY:  It seems you’re rising to that challenge, though! Now for my usual closing question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to someone who has never read it to convince them that they should?

ANDREW:  One book I absolutely love is Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange.” It takes you into a believable near-future and at the same time casts a burning light onto our own culture. That’s something I think that all great sci-fi should do.

It’s not an easy story to read because the protagonist is basically a monster. But understanding why such a terrible creature can be sympathetic is one of the joys of the book.

I also adore the way Burgess unapologetically played with language and idiom, and I always tried to put a little of that into my work. In the society of steam I think it’s there with the accents, and the cadence that I use with the Automaton.

ANTHONY: “Clockwork” has been sitting on my TBR pile for a while now. I’ll have to get to it and see if I recognize any of Burgess’ influence on you. Thanks again for agreeing to be interviewed, Andrew!

 

You can read more about Andrew Mayer and the Society of Steam (including an excerpt from THE FALLING MACHINE) on www.andrewpmayer.com. You can also follow Andrew on Twitter as @AndrewMayer, and he has an author page on Facebook as well. In fact, The Society of Steam has a page of their own on Facebook!

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