Everfair, by Nisi Shawl
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: September 6, 2016
Everfair is a wonderful Neo-Victorian alternate history novel that explores the question of what might have come of Belgium’s disastrous colonization of the Congo if the native populations had learned about steam technology a bit earlier. Fabian Socialists from Great Britian join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s “owner,” King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.
Shawl’s speculative masterpiece manages to turn one of the worst human rights disasters on record into a marvelous and exciting exploration of the possibilities inherent in a turn of history. Everfair is told from a multiplicity of voices: Africans, Europeans, East Asians, and African Americans in complex relationships with one another, in a compelling range of voices that have historically been silenced. Everfair is not only a beautiful book but an educational and inspiring one that will give the reader new insight into an often ignored period of history.
Persons of Color
Everfair is an ambitious book, but it has so much ground to cover that it keeps the reader at arms length. Everfair’s scope is massive: it spans 30 years, multiple countries and continents, and more characters than I can count. In order to manage this within 300 pages, the story is told in short vignettes from multiple points of view. Just as we settle in somewhere, the reader is whisked away, often years later. This leads to the sometimes frustrating situation where important things will happen right as the chapters end, and we sort of find out what happens later.
So, while I am delighted that a lesbian couple is the main romantic pairing that forms the cornerstone of the story, we also only ever get glimpses of their lives over the course of decades. Lisette and Daisy care deeply for each other, but it feels like we see the instances where they hurt and push each other away more than we see moments that convince me that they continue to care and love each other.
The pain and violence of colonialism and slavery have a central role in this story. Racism is shown in many different forms: from those who are overtly racist, and from those who believe themselves benign. Even after Leopold is overthrown and Everfair becomes free of his threat, the tension between the factions of Everfair is clear and present, and is its own threat to the continuity of the country. Daisy and Lisette’s relationship becomes a representation of this as well, since Daisy has racist views on interracial marriage and children that have to be confronted.
In terms of worldbuilding, the steampunk elements are subtle, and grow steadily over the course of the book as the technology is improved and more widely adopted throughout the country of Everfair. In tandem with this technological progression, however, I wanted to see more of the politics of nation building, but negotiations and conversations between important figures are almost entirely handled off-page. This means that some critical character motivation is hidden from us in the cracks between chapters, which makes the latter part of the book feel disjointed.
Everfair unfolds slowly, and requires patience in places. However, although there are some wonderful vignettes scattered throughout, they don’t always come together very well. But, if we are going to ask ourselves “what if?” questions and imagine alternate history, then Everfair is what I want to see more of.
Nisi Shawl is a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a journalist. Her collection, Filter House, won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award. She is coauthor (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: A Practical Approach.
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I received an advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.