Everfair by Nisi Shawl
Published September 6, 2016
Everfair is an alternate steampunk history exploring what might have happened if Fabian Socialists and African-American missionaries purchased land from King Leopold II of Belgium in order to found a new country and refuge, and what if the native population was able to employ steam technology. The novel derives from one of history’s most notorious atrocities: King Leopold II’s reign over the Congo Free State. During his reign, King Leopold II employed mercenaries to enslave, maim, and murder the indigenous people of the Congo in his pursuit of natural rubber for export. As author Nisi Shawl states in a historical preface, the exact number of casualties is unknown, but conservative estimates say that at least half of the populace disappeared between 1895 and 1908.
When it comes to historical fiction and alternate histories, there are certain time periods and historical events that are written about more frequently, such as the renaissance, the regency, or world war two. I’ve read great historical fiction set in these well-covered periods, but there’s a particular excitement attached to learning about a less familiar time and place. For this reason, a big part of the appeal Everfair had for me was that it’s set over three decades from the late 1890s to 1919 in Africa, a period about which I had no prior knowledge.
I really wanted to like Everfair, but ultimately I found it to be a case where the idea is better than the execution.
The novel features a large cast of characters, but not enough time was spent with any of them for me to feel emotionally connected. In one early scene, the reader is presented the names, but few characteristics, of a man’s wife, the governess/recent mistress, the current mistress, and four children, two of whom belong to the wife and two the current mistress. It’s a lot to take in and fortunately the author seems to anticipate this with a ‘some notable characters’ directory at the beginning of the book. Unfortunately, the directory has some pretty major spoilers for later in the book, including who marries who, and some inferred spoilers. When two characters are so obviously in love yet they are not listed as being married I guessed, correctly, that one of them would die.
Everfair is Nisi Shawl’s debut novel, as she’s previously written science-fiction and fantasy short story collections, and honestly, I thought it showed. Everfair reads more like a series of vignettes than a novel with a clear plot. I noticed at least a few times that just when the plot was just building to a confrontation or action scene there would be a time jump of a few months to a different set of characters. Alternately, readers get the action scene but are robbed of any of the aftermath by another time jump. The result is a feeling that character development is happening off the page where the reader can’t follow.
Despite all this negativity, there are things to admire about Everfair. Its strengths lie in the imagination involved in dreaming up steam-powered technology such as air canoes that can be used to travel between locations and even to wage war, and in the deft handling of themes like racism and nationalism.
The Fabian Society purchases land from King Leopold to build the nation of Everfair on, but this land is inhabited by people led by King Mwenda. Initially the King’s interests align with the settlers and they work together against the common threat of European powers. The well-meaning westerners (missionaries and socialists) who seek to provide a refuge for slaves escaping Leopold’s brutality impose their cultural values and language on the newly formed country. Although they speak about equality, the westerners also see miscegenation as undesirable. In a turning point for the unity of the new nation, one founder tries to impose a national holiday on Everfair of another white founder’s birthday. This idea is, understandably, met with hostility by King Mwenda and many of the other Africans who live in the region and tensions threaten to tear the new country apart.
The novel also benefits from a diverse cast of characters, who include Macau inventor and engineer Ho Lin-Huang (Tink), middle-aged English poet Daisy Albin, mixed-race lesbian spy Lisette Toutournier, African-American actress Rima Bailey, and Queen Josina.
I certainly respect the massive undertaking that writing this novel no doubt was, and feel it succeeds on some fronts, but Everfair never grabbed me emotionally and I felt distanced from the material and from the characters throughout.