Freedom’s Conductor

Alright, let’s review a book today — something that’s part historical fiction, part steampunk, part superhero, part mind-blowing awesomeness. Let’s review Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman by Balogun Ojetade.

This was originally published in 2012. It was divided into two parts — Book 1: Kings and Book 2: Judges — and was the author’s vision for a genre he called “Steamfunk” — steampunk that centered on the struggles and heroism of Africans and African-Americans.

We are, I trust, familiar with the life of Harriet Tubman? Escaped slave, liberator, abolitionist, spy, scout, soldier, activist, and all-around badass, she was wounded as a child by a slave owner who hit her in the head with a metal weight, and she suffered visions and dreams for the rest of her life that she felt were messages from God and thus pushed her into a Christian life of doing good for others. She led slaves to freedom, fought against the Confederate South as a spy and soldier, even leading a raid that liberated 750 slaves. For all her work as a freedom fighter, she was rarely appreciated or rewarded by the United States, still largely locked in to a white-supremacist mindset.

Even today, white supremacists hate her and her legacy — they reacted with fury when the Obama administration announced plans to put her picture on the $20 bill, and canceling those plans was a top priority of Donald Trump’s weasley Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

As for Ojetade’s novel, it gets crazy really fast. It opens with Tubman on a secret mission to save a kidnapped girl on behalf of an American actor. Once she tracks the abductors to their hideout, she handily defeats them — using her ninja-level combat skills and Wolverine-level healing factor! But it turns out the actor who hired her — John Wilkes Booth — just killed President Lincoln! And the girl’s real father is Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War — and a secret megalomaniacal supervillain!

And Harriet still has her psychic visions in this book. They warn her that dire times are ahead, so she takes the girl and goes on the run. And Stanton pursues, along with his team of superhuman assassins. There are other threats on the way, including the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, werewolves, ghuls, a body-switching demon that calls himself John Brown, and the elderly but terrifyingly Hulk-like Mama Maybelle.

Harriet is far from defenseless. Aside from her staggering powers, she attracts a host of heroes similarly brushed by power, including Baas Bello, an extraordinarily inventive genius who created a properly steampunkian airship and a literal underground railroad, and Stagecoach Mary, supremely skilled as both a brawler and a shootist.

This book has a number of strengths. Characterization is fantastic, particularly for Harriet herself. I think a lot of writers would take Tubman’s actual badassery and take it as an excuse to give her an action hero persona, all attitude and one-liners. Ojetade sticks to Harriet’s actual personality — she’s a relentless do-gooder and an absolute believer in Christianity and the power of God. She sees herself as a weapon to be used by the Lord, and while she may wish God wouldn’t send her up against quite so many powerful foes, she’s willing to trust in Him and in the visions He sends her. She is not an action star, full of shallow quips — she’s Harriet Tubman. With a few ahistorical powers. In fact, Ojetade has said he considers himself to be a Harriet Tubman superfan and thinks of her as “the first modern superhero,” who lived a life full of amazing feats. Aside from giving her superpowers, she is not a woman who needs embellishment to be cool.

The book is also jam-packed with action. Ojetade is a skilled martial artist and martial arts teacher, and he’s written books about martial arts. He’s a man who knows how to write a thrilling action sequence and how to make it work with the plot. Harriet’s fighting skills are suitably beyond belief, but she still throws a punch you can believe in.

Another of the books strengths is, frankly, its audacity. I knew when I got it that it was a fantasy filled with monsters and action — but I was absolutely unprepared for her to bust heads like Batman in the first few pages. And by the time we find out that her employer was John Wilkes Booth — and when we learn his real identity — I was well and truly hooked. Nothing could’ve shaken me loose.

Ojetade is clearly a fan of speculative fiction, and he’s stated that he wants to see more people of color as heroes in genre fiction, partly because they’ve been so rare in the past. He has said he feels the way to get more people of color reading and writing speculative fiction is to give them more opportunities to see heroes who look like them, and not yet another white hero. He has said books like this are his attempt to turn the tide in the other direction.

Ojetade has written other books closely affiliated with “Moses.” There has been one sequel, “The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman: Freedonia,” which follows the adventures of Harriet and Stagecoach Mary in a parallel universe. He’s also written a roleplaying game called “Steamfunkateers” which includes characters and inspiration from the novel.

You wanna have your brain blown out the back of your head by an amazing action novel? You’ll definitely want to pick this up.

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