This next book was written in 2016 by Nisi Shawl, an African-American writer whose literary focus centers upon science fiction and fantasy works that examine issues involving race, gender, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status. Her first full length novel, what we have here is a steampunk inspired historical fiction about the Belgian Congo.
For anyone unfamiliar with this part of history, the real-life events that inspired this book occurred between 1885 and 1908 in a Central African colony called the Congo Free State. Under the direct rule of Belgian King Leopold II, the colony was the scene of some of the worst atrocities of the day as the local population was brutally subjugated (even by contemporary standards) to maximize profits from the area’s abundant supply of natural rubber. Reports of widespread killings and mutilation within the colony led to international outrage, forcing Leopold to ultimately turn control of the colony over to the Belgian Parliament in 1908. Spanning the years 1889 through 1919, Everfair looks at what might have happened if outside forces played an earlier and more direct role in opposing Leopold’s actions. In this world, an alliance of wealthy Fabian Socialists from England and black Christian missionaries from the United States have joined forces to purchase territory in the Congo where they establish the nation of Everfair upon shared egalitarian principles. The country’s position is tenuous, however, as war quickly breaks out with Leopold’s remaining forces and the new nation is pushed into an alliance with King Mwenda, a powerful local ruler intent on reclaiming his land from European invaders. Although their combined forces may have superior numbers and technology, the real test of Everfair’s endurance will be its ability to overcome internal divisions caused by the differing world views of its three main factions.
I found the premise and scale of this novel absolutely fascinating. It offered an intriguing look at a particularly horrible part of history and did so in a manner that seamlessly fit Everfair into the real-world historical context. I particularly liked how the author crossed the globe to look at how events in other countries affected decisions made in Everfair and how she incorporated other contemporary issues into the story, most notably the build-up to WWI and the spread of pandemic disease across trade routes. Complementing this were a variety of steampunk elements and aesthetics that really enhanced the story in ways that felt quite natural. Everything from the motorbikes and airships that gave Everfair an early military advantage to the mechanical prosthetics used by mutilated former slaves had a clear place and purpose in setting the tone of the book. Finally, I found the theme of people with good intentions and common interests becoming divided when they don’t take the time to understand each other’s perspectives particularly interesting and relevant to today’s world.
Where I wish the story offered a bit more, however, was in how the reader was able to relate to its characters. Given the expansive scope of the novel, I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps it was a bit too ambitious for a single 380 page book. It often skipped months if not years between alternating POV chapters and at times I found it difficult to keep track of when and where the action was without skipping back to the chapter header. Also, with so much jumping around I wasn’t sure at first which people to get most invested in and even when I did, it was hard to get too personally involved with them. While I really enjoyed the main arcs involving the relationship between Lisette Toutournier and her lover Daisy Albin and the politics of King Mwenda’s tensions with Everfair’s settlers, having spent such an irregular amount of time with these characters it was hard to get invested in their stories beyond just reading the facts of what happened at a particular snapshot in time.
Having said all that, I don’t want to end this review on a negative note since, criticisms aside, I enjoyed the book. I liked where the author was coming from with this story and thought she offered up some truly interesting and thought-provoking perspectives. If anything, I wish I had more of an immersion into this world beyond the glimpses we were given.