I admired Nisi Shawl’s alternate history fantasy Everfair (2016) more than I loved it, and I admired it a lot. Shawl creates an African country at the turn of the 20th century, a country that could have existed, and gives it challenges, troubles, and magic.
Everfair starts in 1889. In Europe, the Fabians negotiate with the king of Belgium, Leopold II, to purchase land in Africa adjacent to Leopold’s personal colony, the so-called Congo Free State. While many white Europeans are troubled by the atrocities Leopold commits in his colony, the nations of Europe are hungry for rubber, so no one challenges the mass kidnappings, the enslavement, the mutilations, the wholesale slaughter and the abominable living conditions. Jackie Owen, a Fabian, has raised money and brokered a deal to create a colony where people live in freedom and democracy. Everfair chronicles the birth and growth of that nation, Everfair, from 1889 through 1919.
King Mwenda, ruler of the land Leopold has appropriated and sold, wages asymmetrical warfare against Leopold’s soldiers. At first, he warily welcomes the new influx of Europeans because of their technology. The newcomers, however, bring with them the seeds of the very problems they are trying to solve. They see themselves as colonists. King Mwenda sees them as immigrants — and ultimately, as visitors who he wishes would just go home.
Jackie Owens is a leader of the Fabians and he brokers the deal with Belgium, but the heart of the Everfair colony is Daisy Albin, called “The Poet.” Living in a polyamorous relationship with Laurie Albin, a Fabian founder, Daisy meets Frenchwoman Lisette Toutournier when Albin adds her to his household (already comprising Daisy and another woman, Ellen). Soon all of them embrace the cause and go to Africa.
Everfair is written in short narrative bursts marked by location and year. Along with this technique, which works well in covering thirty years in a relatively short novel, Shawl shifts point of view throughout. We see things from the viewpoint of Daisy and Lisette, but also King Mwenda; his favorite wife Queen Josina; from a black minister from the USA named Thomas Jefferson Wilson, who was once a soldier; Martha Hunter, a black “USian” missionary and nurse; Ho-Lin Huang, a Chinese inventor and metal worker from Macao, and others.
As is often the case with a mosaic novel with a large cast, some characters get more page time than others. Jackie Owens fades out of the book as it continues, because he is mostly in Europe doing PR work for the fledgling colony. Characters we’ve grown to like also die, in battle or of various illnesses. The difficulty of establishing shelter, government and a town in the wilderness is well explored, and added to that are the attacks of Leopold’s men, following the refugees who have fled the enslavement and torture of the Congo Free State.
Everfair has been marketed as steampunk, in large part because of the technological advances in transportation and warfare that Shawl imagines. The constant gleam of metal, especially mechanical hands, equipped with weaponized throwing blades in some cases, flickers throughout the book. This serves two purposes; it is a great bit of imagination, and it reminds us that cutting off hands was one of Leopold’s most common tortures, so common that there was a doggerel poem about it in the late 1800s. The air-canoes, powered by a nuclear reaction fueled by “sacred earths,” are another beautiful bit of steampunk. These vivid, shiny contraptions exist side by side with the real magic of the land; Queen Josina, in addition to being a strategist, diplomat and spy, is a priest of Oxun who frequently uses spells to nudge events along. Fwendi, who comes from a family of shape-shifters, can “ride” cats, putting her consciousness into more than one feline at a time, which is useful for espionage. And perhaps the most interesting character confronting magic is Reverend Thomas Jefferson Wilson, a Christian who becomes the servant of a different god. One of my favorite sequences involves a duplicitous Englishman, Wilson, and a hat his deity instructs him to wear.
The story spans three wars: the war against Belgian aggression, the first world war, in which Everfair sides with Germany against Belgium, and a short-lived internal war when the European immigrants push King Mwenda too far. The story clearly shows us that the European immigrants are not going to let go of their imperialist beliefs — with the possible exception of Lisette. They will make some adjustments, but clearly it won’t be until the next generations that things will truly start to change, and the European-Africans will become true citizens.
In some ways, (and I know this is a weird comparison) Everfair reminds me the most of A.S. Byatt’s WWI novel The Children’s Book. In that book, the brilliant and insightful first generation is gradually revealed to have blind spots, to be selfish and undisciplined, with the consequences of their choices devolving onto their children.
Everfair is amazingly imaginative, and is so thoroughly grounded that it reads as if it could have happened. Shawl plainly did her research but she does not pause the story to “show off” her hard work. Rather, Shawl settles the research within the points of view of the various characters.
While I loved the ideas and the vivid images, I did find the episodic nature of the book meant it lost momentum for me. The choice to write this in vignettes with jumps of time in between, sometimes of a year or more, is the right choice given the nature of the story. It’s just a risk. Shawl also combines point of view shifts, which were also the right choice for this book with its broad canvas. Sometimes, though, emotionally important events happened, or decisions were made, off stage. When I say I admire the book rather than love it, this is why. For me the slight distance from the characters meant that I never felt immersed in their lives.
That said, Everfair is not only a powerful work of imagination, it shows what a skilled and hard-working writer can do in the subgenre or steampunk. Yes, steampunk can be gender-swapping, goggle-toting, cane-sword-fighting fun, and it can also ask serious questions and bring a perspective to our-world history in a way that will stay with the reader. If you question what you were taught about your own history and you love exploring and adventure, you will like Everfair.