It's obvious to say that 'Everfair' is precisely the sort of novel that the Rabid Puppies so flamboyantly rail against. It's an alternate history, set predominantly in Africa, that explores a socialist experiment run by a real organisation. Its sprawling cast features almost no white heterosexual men; proceedings are driven instead by a varied collection of lesbians, Asians and blacks, the latter both African and African American. The villain of the piece is as establishment as could be, a European king, absent but the cause of both the big story and many of the little ones. Because of that, many of the characters are also refugees.
Now, I'm no rabid puppy and a paragraph like that one is far more likely to make me want to read a book rather than to avoid it. I adore the ideas behind 'Everfair' and was eager to explore this alternate history with steampunk elements. Even having finished the novel, some of what Nisi Shawl did within its pages haunts me. Yet I hated the book. I fought with it from its early pages to its late ones. It frustrated me and it annoyed me. I couldn't put it down but I never want to pick it back up again. And, because of all of that, it's going to be one of the most memorable books I've ever read.
The reason the book exists is Leopold II, the longest reigning King of the Belgians, who in 1885 founded the Congo Free State. This wasn't a Belgian colony, it was a private concern which existed only to fill his pockets with proceeds from the sale of ivory and, later, rubber. The quantity of land that he ruled in this way amounted to a million square miles, roughly the same size as western Europe. And the atrocities that were committed in his name were so horrible and so widespread that they sparked international outrage and prompted the formation of the first human rights organisation, the Congo Reform Association. Fully half of the population died during the Congo Free State period. The subject makes for particularly grim reading.
Leopold doesn't appear in this novel but he towers over it like the Angel of Death. The first half revolves around a new nation, named Everfair, from land carved out of the Congo Free State by British socialists and American missionaries, who purchased that land from Leopold. We follow this new nation, founded on the socialist principles of the Fabian Society, as it's born and as it struggles to remain alive, swamped as it is by refugees from Leopold's rule and beyond. The second half looks at what happens next, after it outlasts the Belgian tyrant but struggles internally for its heart and soul.
So what goes horribly wrong, as they say? What's oddest about this book is that I feel that Nisi Shawl did exactly what she aimed to do and succeeded at everything she wanted.
This works best when looked at from the standpoint of history. The first half is hope and optimism; we struggle and fight alongside those who founded Everfair and we care about its future. The second half, however, is full of inevitable doom, not the failure of Everfair so much as its obsolescence, and we end with a new beginning, one that's more realistic but less optimistic. Shawl's best drawn character is the nation of Everfair itself, whom we follow from birth to death. Everfair is a Utopian vision which fails to sustain itself in reality; she (somehow I feel she has to be female) fades sadly like a forgotten god.
Shawl doesn't fail to acknowledge that a nation is its people, but she finds it difficult to maintain them within the format she adopts because there's little time to sit down and get to know them. 'Everfair' is comprised of 360 or so pages of text that document thirty years of time, from 1889 to 1919. Unlike many novels, which concentrate on an important period but start and end wider, this is happy to run through that entire period. That doesn't leave her much time to focus on any key moment and the choice of those moments becomes paramount. I fought immediately with the book because I tried to read it as a story of characters and couldn't figure out who was important; only when I realised that it's a story of a country could I come to terms with it.
Reading this book felt like I was in a time machine as it hurtled through history, an intelligent one that knew exactly where to go, its only window opening on Everfair once a month so I could look and listen and try to understand what was happening before it sped on once more. It's frustrating because we see the key moments in an impressionistic fashion without any of the sweep. We assemble for battle but miss the war. We fly, having never taken off. We work with others, whom we've never met. We arrive in one town but then leave another, having entirely missed both. We meet characters who feel important but then vanish for good, while others we initially overlook keep on cropping up again and again. We miss births, marriages and deaths, but make this meeting and that one. It's never about the people.
I found myself in an odd situation where I appreciated Shawl's linguistic decisions as a writer but hated them as a reader. As a writer, I liked how she told her story from many perspectives; as a reader, I often got lost. As a writer, I enjoyed the flavour of unexplained local terminology, like 'aircanoes' instead of 'dirigibles'; as a reader, I rhymed it with 'volcanoes'. As a writer, I enjoyed the passage of time being in markets and seasons; as a reader, I couldn't think in four day periods. As a writer, I liked the progression of how characters are addressed; as a reader, I didn't immediately twig that Tink was suddenly Mr. Ho.
I also had trouble with the tone of the piece. It's primarily historical, telling the story of a nation, but it ventures into fantasy in an inconsistent manner. The steampunk elements are well integrated, because they're just technology tweaked in time and place to ground the story. A few side trips into native belief are less successful, though they conversely provide some of the most fascinating moments in the novel. One character can ride cats, which means that she can send part of her mind into their bodies and direct their actions, a useful talent for a spy. Another is a Christian missionary, whose life is literally saved by a native god, which prompts a glorious crisis of faith.
The final problem is an odd one and I debated on whether it was a positive or negative thing. For all that this book exists because of the atrocities perpetrated in the Congo Free State in the name of Leopold II, it hardly touches on that subject at all. We see the refugees flow into Everfair, we go on rescue missions to death camps and see towns burned to the ground, but these are abstracted. A number of characters have missing hands, but that seems to be to allow for steampunk prosthetics rather than to offer comment on an iconic detail of Leopold's rule that is never explained. The book provides us with perspectives from all sides, except his and that hurts the story.
This has been a difficult review to write. 'Everfair' fascinated me, enthralled me and made me think. I'm thankful to Nisi Shawl for taking me on this journey. I appreciate her ambition in attempting this novel. I'd very much like to read some of her short fiction. But, as a reader, this book drove me nuts more than any I can remember. I hated it with a passion. ~~ Hal C F Astell