Everfair offers an incredible alternative look at the history of the Belgian Congo working with a particular hypothetical:
What if a group of colonists, natives, and returning African Americans created their own country called Everfair and adopted steam-power in their fight against King Leopold’s forces in the Congo?
It seems like a strange question to ask and a strange premise to explore but Shawl uses it perfectly to tell a very compelling story. I will admit, though, that I was expecting a more traditional narrative. I expected a handful of primary characters and a very linear exploration of the plot. I expected the steampunk aspects to ultimately overpower the rest of the story and for the technology to take priority.
I was pleasantly surprised when that was not what I got.
Shawl embraces a different means of telling her story. Instead of focusing on just a few characters, she tells the story from the point of view well over a dozen different characters. They come from all different walks of life and very different backgrounds.
They are white, native Congolese, African American, and Chinese. They dabble in engineering and mysticism. Some are tribal leaders while others are children coming of age as the first generation of Everfair citizens. It’s a very broad group of people and luckily Shawl provides a very handy list of characters in the beginning of the book in case you get confused.
Their different perspectives are what make this book so great.
The story jumps and skips through time, alternating between characters after often rather short chapters. At times it can seem a bit disconnected and it may take a while before you revisit the perspective of your favorite characters. But it all ultimately comes together. This format of storytelling is perfect for the story. It makes it easier to explore what really matters – the characters themselves.
Because while Everfair as a country was created to embrace lofty goals and utopian ideals the reality is different. Shawl does not shy away from the tough issues. Race, sexuality, religion, and more become very serious issues throughout the story and even in Everfair they remain divisive.
No matter how long people are together and no matter the sacrifices it seems like even they cannot move past old prejudices even after a few decades. While the country comes together they have to deal with these internal issues just as much as they do the external crises that face them.
It’s often these parts of the story that take the forefront in Everfair. While there are certainly steampunk elements they are far less important or impactful than the very human exploration of the various characters and their part in the story. And while the history and development of the country is important to the book we learn all of that through the perspective of the various characters.
Nisi Shawl did a fantastic job with this book. I know some people might find the pace a little off and the constant shifting of time, character, and location to be a little confusing. But ultimately it was perfect for the story and the way it was told. It was admittedly challenging at times but I enjoyed every moment of it.
I highly recommend Everfair and I think it’s probably one of the most noteworthy pieces of speculative fiction to be released this year.
Before you begin reading this book I highly recommend you consider doing a little background research beforehand. Nisi Shawl presents a fantastic alternative view of history and the plight of King Leopold II’s Congo. But if you aren’t familiar with the history you’ll lose the full impact of the story.
I’m not saying that you need to go out and read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (though if you have they’ll be helpful). Even just a cursory look at the horrors of colonialism in the Belgian Congo on Wikipedia would be enough. In a book that’s essentially speculative fiction it’s important to know that while the steampunk aspects never happened the horrors faced by the native populations were very, very real.
And if you enjoy Everfair, you should definitely check out some of Nisi Shawl’s other work.
While Everfair is her first full novel, she’s been a prolific writer of short-stories over the past few decades. She’s also served as an editor on numerous African American and LGBT collections of speculative fiction stories. She has done a lot to promote diverse voices in science fiction and there’s a lot of really great work to be found in her bibliography if you get a chance to explore it more.
And before I end this review I want to point out one thing that some readers may not notice: Everfair has a short and yet moving dedication to Octavia Butler in the beginning that can’t be missed. Everfair is definitely one of our must-read books of the year for fans of speculative and historical fiction. Nisi Shawl has done some truly great work with it. It’s definitely worth checking out!