The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman Will Make You Believe in Steamfunk

This is the last of my Summer Reading List book reviews: reviews I did of older books that had been sitting on my Kindle waiting for the right time. I didn’t get to all of them (Sorry, Octavia) but the ones I didn’t finish will sit on my virtual shelf, waiting for their chance. Happy end of Summer, all. Time to refresh that reading list for Black Speculative Fiction Month and beyond.

Balogun Ojetade is a prolific author, and along with a group of other Black authors, he has been involved in the development and evolution of entire arms of Black Speculative Fiction: Steamfunk, Dieselfunk, Sword and Soul, Cyberfunk. I mean, dude’s busy. I’ve reviewed Steamfunk books in the past, but I wanted to come back and read one of the originals from Ojetade, Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman, Books 1&2, so I could really come to enjoy the genre. And let me tell you I’m glad I did.

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She looks real unassuming here. But let me tell you, she will throw you those hands faster than you can say Underground Railroad.

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Here’s the set up: Harriet Tubman is not only a hero in the small-h, saving slaves kind of way, she’s also Gifted. By which I mean, she has superhero powers. She has super healing, uncanny strength, the ability to create illusions, and legendary dexterity. She also occasionally has blackouts, in which she receives messages from the Lawd. Given that the historical Tubman did have blackouts, this may be more true than we know. This version of Steamfunk Harriet finds herself involved in a kidnapping mess involving, I kid you not, John Wilkes Booth and Edwin M. Stanton Secretary of War under Abraham Lincoln. In case you’re not up on your Civil War history, I’ve linked to their bios. Both Booth and Stanton are also Gifted: Booth is a shapeshifter and Stanton… well, to avoid spoiling too much, let’s just say he’s a bad, bad man. This is the first thing I enjoyed about the book. All of the main characters are historical, with their mythical superhero talents tailored to their historical skills and weaknesses. Knowing who Edwin Stanton was, not to mention John Brown of the famous raid on Harper’s Ferry, adds to the hilarity of watching these Steamfunk versions run around and be outsmarted and whipped by Harriet Tubman.

As the plot unfolds, Tubman recruits to her aid a Gifted African inventor named Baas Bello who has created air steamships, his is called The Nefertiti, and tunneled nation-spanning underground railroad lines…literal ones. She also later gets help from Mary Fields, the famous Stagecoach Mary who in our history is renown as one of the most amazing women in the settlement of the West. Click that link, really. In the book, Mary is Gifted with superhuman strength and senses — a kind of Black Woman Wolverine who loves to smoke cigars, drink whiskey, and crack wise at authority figures.
Together, Harriet, Baas, and Mary kill Stanton and Booth 3 or 4 different times. They also decapitate ghouls, shoot-up a Mexican town and defeat a Mexican army, outsmart Marie Laveau the famous New Orleans voodoo queen, and cripple Benjamin Banneker. If it is not now obvious, this may be the Blackest speculative fiction book you ever read.

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The plot of Book 1 is very good. Harriet saves people and displays super powers that are only a little bit beyond what she might actually have been capable of. The dialog is sharp and the fight scenes are top-notch. Book 2 isn’t as good. The chapters are disconnected and the thread of the plot frays and feels flimsy. There’s less motivation, less explanation, and the pieces just aren’t as tightly placed. It read in parts like Ojetade was just trying to get all of his ideas out on paper and into the world, to really build a framework for this genre, without as much attention being paid to the plot and structure of the book itself. Don’t let that stop you from buying the two-book bundle, both books are entertaining; I found more to love in Book 1 than in Book 2.

This is a straight-up Black fairy tale. These are our heroes made larger than life in a fun, exciting way. Not all of the white people in the books are evil, most of them are inconsequential. Our history is the center of the entire affair. This is in keeping with Ojetade’s goal of centralizing Black experience in his fiction and other works. It is also in step with so much of what is happening in Black Speculative Fiction right now in terms of writing to a particular audience — us. I’m not saying white readers won’t enjoy it, I think they will. But I do think the thrill I got from this book is particular to the Black reading experience: my heroes have always beaten super-human odds, gone up against the devil himself, and won. Now, in Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman, Books 1&2, they get credit for that.

Speaking of Balogun Ojetade, I have the pleasure of meeting him at a fan convention, Con-volution 2015, this weekend, October 2-4 in San Mateo, California. If you’re in the area, cruise through! Hit us both on Twitter if you do, so we can keep an eye out for you: @Baba_Balogun and @LEHLight.

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  • JoElle

    sooooooooooooo happy to be here

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