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by Nisi Shawl

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

I received a free e-book of this title from the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It was an Uncorrected Proof, with some formatting issues, but nothing that inhibited my enjoyment of the story.

One rewarding aspect of alternate histories is they give readers an incentive to seek information about the real history of a time period or region, doubly so when it is something the reader previously knew little about. Everfair covers thirty years (1889-1919) of events in what at that time was known as the Congo Free State, later the Belgian Congo, and now the Democratic Republic of Congo. That first name has to be the perfect example of an oxymoron. It was created in 1885 by King Leopold II of Belgium, but as a private business enterprise, not as a colony of Belgium. His stated purpose was to drive Portugal's slave trade out of the region and provide humanitarian aid to the indigenous population. He instead personally profited from sales of ivory, rubber, and various minerals mined there. The treatment of African workers was cruel and merciless, a common punishment for not meeting a quota being the amputation of hands. It is estimated that up to 20% of the population was murdered. There was a great outcry from progressive movements in Europe and America against Leopold's actions, eventually forcing him to reliquish control.

That's what happened in our world; the novel presents a slightly different scenario. Britain's Fabian Society, still an active real-world organization, was composed of progressive political thinkers. It's membership during this period included George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and Havelock Ellis. None of them are featured here, but several of their fictional colleagues are. The society, in conjunction with a group of African-American missionaries, purchased land from Leopold with the intention of establishing a utopian society, to be known as Everfair. Leopold betrays them of course, attacking several of their settlements, but they also have to contend with a local king who wishes to retain autonomy over his ancestral lands. An uneasy peace is brokered between King Mwenda and the outsiders, and they are eventually able to defeat Leopold.

What's good about this book? First, the narrative is complex and epic in scope, and Shawl is mostly successful in embuing the story with the gravitas it deserves. Second, the characters are also complex, and vividly portrayed. The author is known for her essays on Writing the Other. The characters range from European elite to African peasants, from American Negroes to Chinese engineers, all ages and personality types, expressing many different political and spiritual beliefs, not to mention a few who defied the conventional mores of sexual orientation. I had no problem distinguising one from the other, each had their own unique voice and personality. What's more remarkable, I think Shawl was successful in portraying all of them logically and honestly, no matter their nationality or ethnicity. None are perfect, all have flaws. Several situations reminded me of the "man-splaining" and "White-splaining" complaints concerning current political and social discourse. Everyone thinks their vision is the correct one, and wonders why others can't understand. It's only when we can empathize with others, reason out a compromise for mutual benefit, that anything positive can ever be accomplished. By the end, I believe Everfair is on its way to success.

What's not as good? As I told the author during a Twitter exchange this afternoon, it's just not long enough. Her response was, "Maybe some sequels?" Yes, Nisi, if you choose to write them I'll read them, but that's not what I meant. There are too many large gaps of time between chapters, so much more of the story to tell. Some of the gaps are up to a year and a half, plus nearly every chapter switches perspective to different characters and locales, with an abrupt and unresolved end to previous events. For instance, Lisette Toutournier was a French author and nurse (and sometime lover of Daisy Albin, one of the Fabians). Everfair used her for gathering intelligence in various locations, as well as soliciting aid from foreign governments and institutions. In one chapter, set in March 1902, she is in Baltimore. The next chapter jumps to September 1903, when she is in Alexandria, Egypt. Next, she's back in Everfair in January 1904. I kept wondering what had happened to her, and to everyone else, during those gaps. Part One ends in January '04, but Part Two begins more than ten years later, skipping over the conclusion of the war against Leopold. It's not a long book by today's standards, less than 400 pages in hardcover. I would have liked to see another 100 pages or so to fill in some of those gaps. Another minor complaint is the inclusion of a fantasy element, which didn't seem to fit with the rest of the narrative, but I won't give any details on that.

Along with being an alternate history, many are categorizing it as steampunk. There is a bit of that for sure, with the ubiquitous airship in use, although the first models were called air-canoes. There are steam-powered bicycles and boats, other machinery a bit ahead of its time, as well as complex mechanical prostheses to replace severed hands. There is another scientific principle in play as well, which could very well put this in the realm of atomic-punk. The fastest of the air-canoes are driven by what is called the "power of separated earths," and my suspicion was later confirmed when the elements were identified as pitchblende, the original term for what is now known as uraninite. There are several mentions of the precautions necessary in mining the elements, and in the handling of the airship engines, but unless I mis-read one passage, at least one person had a mechanical hand also powered that way, but without mention of its danger to the user.

In spite of comments above that might seem overly critical, I still recommend this. It's challenging and thought provoking. Everfair was designed to be a utopia. As you should know, utopia means "no place," meaning the perfection of a utopia is probably unattainable. Can the same be said of Everfair? While the ending is somewhat optimistic, I have to wonder if man is capable of creating a world that would be equally fair to everyone. Probably not, but shouldn't we at least try?


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Nisi Shawl


Finalist for:
Campbell Memorial

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