I’ve come across Nisi Shawl’s short stories from time to time, including one set in the Everfair universe. This is her first novel. In it, she posits an alternate history in which Europeans and Americans purchase a tract of land in the midst of the Congo from King Leopold II of Belgium, intending to set up a new country, a safe haven for African Americans seeking freedom, disenchanted Europeans, Africans of various tribes fleeing King Leopold’s oppressive rule, and other wandering people in search of a homeland. To this, Shawl adds steampunk technology that enables creation of dirigibles that the locals call aircanoes and mechanical prosthetics to replace limbs severed by King Leopold’s mercenaries. The citizens of Everfair also benefit from the supernatural influence of local herbs, enchantments, and spirits. All of this makes for a very compelling and exciting story.
Shawl peoples her imaginary world with a diversity of characters such as African American missionaries, idealistic Europeans, nationalistic Africans, tech-minded East Asians, cunning assassins, and oppressive slaveholders. Rather than stick to the viewpoint of one character, she skips from character to character, at the same time moving forward from a month to a year at a time with each chapter scene. The technique works excellently to propel the story relentlessly onward through this alternate history; at the same time, it allows in-depth exploration of the main characters as they react to ever-changing events.
The novel is told in two parts. Part one deals with the founding of Everfair and increasing antagonism that builds up to a war with Belgium. This first half is by far more action-packed and faster-paced. Part two deals with the aftermath of the war and what happens to the various characters; although absorbing and fascinating, it almost comes across as a sort of extended epilog. However, because Shawl has created characters with so much depth, reader interest in their various fates is strong enough to accommodate the slower pace.
Overall, I find Everfair a great read: wonderfully original in its concept and very well executed. The rapidly evolving chronology of the style suits the material perfectly, allowing extensive character development while simultaneously giving the novel epic proportions by allowing it to cover two decades of history. Shawl takes full advantage of the situation of all these people of various nations and races put together by social and political circumstances to explore the complex relationships that would ensue. Additionally, although Everfair is presented as a utopia of sorts, Shawl acknowledges the cultural and political difficulties of creating and maintaining a utopia when confronted with the realities of pride, nationalism, religious intolerance, narrow-mindedness, greed, and selfishness.
All in all, this is a great novel that works on several levels: as an adventure story, character study, social commentary, and imaginative alternative to the much sadder reality that took place on the African continent. In a way, it’s too bad that we have to pin labels on things such as “science fiction,” “alternate history,” and “steampunk,” and just let a story be a story. All labels aside, this is an excellent story.