Published: September 6, 2016
Genre: Fantasy, Historical
Pages: 384 (Hardcover)
My Rating: 2.5/5.0
An alternate history / historical fantasy / steampunk novel set in the Belgian Congo, from noted short story writer Nisi Shawl.
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.
I was excited to get my hands on a copy of Everfair to see how Nisi Shawl would re-imagine the outcome of the Belgian occupation of the Congo. Since reading King Leopold’s Ghost in college, I remained curious about this period of history that I had previously known very little about. The prospect of an alternate history featuring mechanical prosthetics, airships and the like drew me in, so I agreed to read and review the book
The character cast was broad and rather diverse. I was surprised to find my favorites were Tink, a boy from Macao, who was skilled in the production of mechanical prosthetics and steam powered devices, and Fwendi, a Congolese girl who was both actress and spy. Unfortunately I felt that neither one of these characters got enough screen/page time because it was mostly focused on Daisy and Lisette. Both were extremely involved in the political side of things and their chapters usually dragged along for me. They had spots of interest, but overall there was an emotional disconnect with them and most of the other characters in the book.
The story of Everfair spans more than twenty years, from the founding of the colony, through the war with the Belgians, the events of WWI and further. This isn’t a particularly long book and the time span is significant. As a result, readers get few details of the war with the Belgians and the characters remain shallow of depth. I feel like this would have been better broken into perhaps two books, one of the founding and expulsion of Belgian influence, and a second detailing the events in the latter years. This would have allowed for more details, more character development, and a more interesting read.
Overall, I found this book to unfortunately be uninteresting. Everfair took me nearly a week to read, and I barely skimmed the last 40 or so pages because I just wanted to be done.