Review: Everfair, Nisi Shawl

Note: I received an e-galley of Everfair from the publisher for review consideration.

The genesis of Nisi Shawl’s debut novel Everfair was the author’s bafflement that she had never gotten into steampunk, and her theory that the reason for this is steampunk’s uncomfortable connections with colonialism. Everfair, therefore, creates an alternate version of Congolese history in which white and black Europeans and Americans purchase land in the Congo to create a small country called Everfair. The residents of Everfair develop steam technology that allows them, in alliance with the indigenous king of the Everfair territory, to chase out King Leopold’s forces. Everfair follows the creation and development of this country over the course of thirty years.

Everfair

Oh gosh. Ohhhhhh gosh. Please hold while I lie on the floor and catch my breath over the greatness of this book. Oh, where to begin. How shall I count the ways in which Everfair won my heart? I looooooved this book. It’s wonderful on its own merits, and it also made me feel excited for the ever-expanding (I hope) globalism of contemporary fantasy.1 Shawl writes from multiple viewpoints in a way that extends compassion to every character, but gives nobody a pass on their blind spots. The project of nation-building inevitably includes casualties, and Shawl never shies away from that truth, even when her characters do.

(Did you read The Just City? Did you like The Just City? This is kind of like that! But with more dirigibles, and in nineteenth-century Congo.)

If I had a complaint with Everfair, it’s that I wasn’t entirely ready for the way it makes large jumps in time and place. The chapters are short, which at first made it challenging for me to settle in comfortably to the point of view and time period of each one, and successive chapters are frequently set months ahead of the chapters that came before. This is doable — you have to pay attention to the chapter headings that let you know where and when the action is happening — but it was a little difficult for me to adjust to, right at first. It also gives rise to the kind of situation where one chapter will see the characters debating a heavily contentious issue of serious strategic significance, and the next will find you six months on, with that whole problem resolved and in the past.

However, Nisi Shawl is careful to catch you up to what’s happening, in ways that almost never feel like visits from the exposition fairy, and the benefit of this type of writing is that we truly get to see the growth and changes in Everfair over a course of decades. At first, there’s a degree of unity among the residents of Everfair: The most important thing for African, East Asian, European, and American Everfairians2 alike is to save as many people from King Leopold’s brutal rubber trade as possible, and ultimately to drive the Belgians out of the Congo.

But what truly made my heart sing3 was the second half, in which the priorities, loyalties, and demands of the different groups of stakeholders begin to conflict with each other. Shawl is respectful of everyone, laying out as fairly as possible the feelings and claims of the indigenous people of Everfair and its colonizers. She doesn’t try to find silver bullets for the problems in the world she’s created: Yes, the settlers were vital to driving out the Belgians; and yes, they shed blood and made their homes in Everfair; and still, the land belongs first and primarily not to Daisy Albin of England or Martha Hunter of America, but to King Mwenda and his people.

With all of this, Shawl brings her book to a conclusion that might be argued to be slightly too neat. When, after all, did competing land claims ever settle themselves bloodlessly? But there’s something revolutionary about a story of African colonialism in which opposing interests are able to find a peaceful middle ground.

I’ve been crazy psyched about this book — which really seems to cater to 100% of my interests — since December of last year, and it did not disappoint. Everfair! Read it and come back and squee with me!

  1. I dunno, maybe that’s grandiose to say? It’s not like I think Everfair is going to usher in some sea-change in the way we write fantasy. Just, wow, this book.
  2. That is not a demonym the book uses.
  3. This whole book made my heart sing.
  • Why is it that the crew of the Wayfarer struck you as too polite, while the residents of Everfair, who sound like they bend over backwards even more, do not? A more rational premise?
    I wonder how conscious the similarity to The Just City is. I’ve met Nisi Shawl, actually several times, at WisCon and then ICFA.

    • This is such a good question; I had to really think about it. I THINK that at least one reason has to do with the higher stakes in Everfair than the Chambers book. Another reason is that the Wayfarer people only ever get it wrong quite briefly and then are schooled and come quickly back around to the path of righteousness and amity — whereas in Everfair, there are characters who get quite important things wrong for DECADES. And then a third thing, I guess, is that in Everfair, even when everyone is trying their best and being as kind as they can be, their interests still are not always in alignment, and conflicts still arise. So that was all just more interesting to me, I guess.

  • CoolCurry

    I’m glad you liked it so much!

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    Oh wow, your enthusiasm! Onto my list it goes. I did read The Just City and loved it and you remind me I have yet to read the other two. So much to read!

    • I actually had sort of mixed feelings about The Just City, and I haven’t gotten around to the other two yet either. But I would read a sequel to Everfair, like, tomorrow. πŸ˜€

  • It’s easy to feel your enthusiasm for this book. πŸ™‚ Fantasy is not something I usually read, but the “alternate version of Congolese history” sounds very intriguing. Last year, I took a chance with Lagoon (sci fi in Nigeria), so maybe this year, I try fantasy in the Congo. Thanks for the tip.

    • DO IT! I love that we’re getting more fantasy set in Africa these days; I can’t get enough of it!

  • Kim Aippersbach

    Wow. Ambitious premise, but sounds like she pulled it off. I feel like the style of narration might make it hard to get invested with the characters, but you do sound pretty invested! (Though it sounds like it’s more of an idea book than a character book.) I’m all in favour of books that explore non-bloody solutions to intractable problemsβ€”if we can’t imagine them, how can we ever make them real?

    • It’s definitely more of an idea book than a character book — though with that said, I still did like the characters! Not enough to be sad when they died, but enough that I was curious what would happen to them.

  • TheShrinkette

    Gosh, that cover!😍 Everything about this book sounds great, and I trust your review, especially when it’s a book that’s making your heart sing and such, it’s almost as if you’re popping out of your screen right now, grabbing my face, and asking me to read this, so I’m off to buy it.

    • EXCELLENT. Please report back when you have read it and let me know what you think. (I gotta keep refining that Janani-book-recs algorithm.)

  • Life of a Female Bibliophile

    The cover is so gorgeous! Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this book. The fact that it combines globalism with fantasy and some steampunk elements peaks my interest! I look forward to reading this. πŸ™‚

    • Yayyyy I hope you enjoy it! It’s honestly so fascinating to discover the world she creates, and the book kept branching off in new (awesome) directions I wasn’t expecting.

  • The premise sounds super cool! I usually dislike steampunk novels as well, but this one is tempting me

    • I really recommend it! After having very mixed results on past steampunk reading, reading this was not only a super awesome steampunk reading experience in its own right, but also kind of made me want to read more and more and more steampunk. πŸ˜€

  • Ohmygosh, you make this book sound so amazing! I will certainly check it out. I enjoy steampunk and wish there was more of it out there and the fact that this book is set in Congo makes it more appealing.

  • I hadn’t heard of this before your review and I’m surprised! It sounds fascinating and seems like just the kind of unique, more global read so many bloggers are looking for.