The remarkable Sweep of Stars, first volume of the Astra Black trilogy by Maurice Broaddus, begins with a naming ceremony, one that draws together the community and traditions of Muungano, the new civilization in space fought for by people of Africa and its diaspora. And what a civilization it is – based on the Moon, Mars and Titan and rooted in community values quite opposite to those on Original Earth, which is still in the grip of power building, exploitation of resources and religious extremism. In Muungano, poetry and song infuse the minds of the characters, visual artwork is everywhere and the clothes people wear celebrate their individuality as well as their family colors and station among their peers.
The naming ceremony for the young leader, Amachi Adisa, brings out all her conflicting emotions, self-doubt, rivalries and excitement at accepting a new level of responsibility in her family and community. It is a skillful portrait of a strong young woman, but that is followed immediately by a reminder of the harsher reality of life for Muungano. An attack at the embassy on Original Earth throws the governing council or Ijo into turmoil.
This section is narrated by Maulana Buhari, head of security and a man who knows that Muungano must be prepared to fight for its freedom. Even as he bluntly announces the attack and observes the fury of the leaders, he reflects on what makes this a strong community – the dependence on one another to work through their fears, their rage.
Sweep of Stars moves from this brilliant opening, that dramatically weaves together many of the key dimensions of this new civilization still maturing only seventy years after its founding, to a complex series of events that test the ability of several key leaders and institutions to survive under new attacks.
Like most space sagas, there is a lot to absorb in this first volume of the trilogy, with six or seven point of view characters, speaking variously in first, second or third person. A cast of characters at the beginning and an ample glossary at the end are helpful in sorting through unfamiliar names and terms drawn from several African languages, but such aids have become par for the course in imagined worlds of such complexity.
By the midpoint of the book the story flows powerfully through several dimensions of action, relationships and politics. A bomb nearly kills the Muungano elder visiting OE, a child sickens from a mysterious illness, a leader suddenly dies, another elder disappears while on board a space ship, a troop of Muungano warriors come under fierce attack on a strange planet. There are multiple mysteries, and the search for answers pushes at the limits of the community spirit so carefully cultivated in this world. Is Original Earth trying to undermine Muungano from within or seek outright war?
Perhaps the grandest arc of this first volume is the story of the succession following the death of the community leader or Camara. This role relies on a distinctively collaborative leadership style as befits the governing norms of this society. The Camara is a leader who seeks to maintain the unity of the leadership council by sensing and building consensus, transforming conflict, respecting all points of view and leading the council to come to unity in all major decisions.
There has only been one Camara, and this grand figure, full of humor, jokes, songs and poetry has in his great age become almost a spiritual force among the people. His death strikes deep at the values of the Muungano, and several of the key characters are either candidates to replace him or members of the founding families that influence the decision on who will lead. The background and discussions leading up to this decision may not seem like the stuff of exciting science fiction, but Maurice Broaddus makes them compelling.
The Muungano culture may prize dreaming about the future and what it should be but it’s also a culture that has fought to be free of Original Earth and its oppressive ideologies and internalized colonial attitudes of superior and inferior peoples. Broaddus’ world is full of hip-hop, jazz and references to dozens of heroes of the African and African-American diaspora experience. But these all help anchor the characters who are searching out their own futures and doing it as fiercely and as well as they can.
So the story of Sweep of Stars is about a culture of the future but told through the powerful experiences and confrontations of individuals struggling to understand their own agency. Ever mindful of their debt to the past, their imposter syndromes, their undeniable talents and their sheer force to live a life on their own terms, they struggle not only to define themselves but to protect their new tradition of community that gives them full scope to be who they are.
Broaddus is the kind of writer who puts everything he wants to put into his story and manages to make it all work and flow together into a compelling whole. It’s inspiring to dream with him of what the future could hold (and also kind of damning that the world as it is falls so far short of what it might be). The Astra Black series promises to clear a wide field for dreaming and action that can be truly transformative. Sweep of Stars is the brilliant beginning of a major series.
My thanks to Tor Books and NetGalley for an advance review copy on which to base this review, consisting solely of my own opinions.