Genre: Alternate History / Historical Fantasy / Steampunk
Publisher: Tor (September 6, 2016)
Series: Stand Alone
Length: 384 pages
My Rating: 3 stars
Blending alternate history, steampunk, and fantasy elements as well as tackling difficult social issues (colonization, racism, religious tolerance, and gender intolerance), Everfair sets out to tell an epic story of the Congo from the era of Belgian control (circa 1885) to post-World War I. Featuring a diverse cast, Nisi Shawl crafts her narrative to allow readers to see through the eyes of every one of the characters, as these diverse persons experience important events in their own unique ways. And, overall, the author succeeds in crafting an entertaining story set in an inventive setting, which also happens to educate readers in many ways.
The title of this book is taken from the central local of the story: the imagined colony of Everfair. In this alternate timeline, a group of well-meaning westerners with socialist beliefs (the Fabian Society) found a colony in Africa. Willingly giving sanctuary to escaped slaves from the tyrannical Congo ruled by King Leopold II of Belgium, the Fabians speak of equality and acceptance for all people, but they do not even perceive their own hidden racism, as they impose western customs on all the colonial inhabitants. But, somehow, someway, the Fabians and their fellow Everfair citizens must find a way to bridge their differences, accept all people for who they are, and overcome the many obstacles in their path to create a utopian society in the heart of Africa.
Obviously, the most captivating feature of Everfair is the concept itself. A four decades long struggle to create, defend, and firmly establish a new country with enlightened ideals is one most every reader will crave to experience firsthand. That Nisi Shawl is able to tackle the social issues, cultural clashes, and horrors of European colonization of Africa while still mixing in steampunk and fantasy elements only adds to the intrigue of this novel. And to top it all off, Everfair is set in a very realistic, well developed alternate history setting, which does not disappoint in its use of real historical people and events. All of which means the premise for this story and its goals are ambitious and worthy of notice by readers everywhere.
Like all things, however, Everfair also has its fair share of missteps, flaws, elements which failed to excite but disappointed or puzzled. The most glaring example being the actual structure of the narrative itself. Here Nisis Shawl uses short, snapshot-like chapters to tell her story. These brief glimpses focusing on different characters, shifting from place to place, and skipping substantial periods of time. Many of the most important events in the tale taking place in between these chapters. Readers having to be satisfied with a quick exposition of what had happened when they were not looking. Many of these events major plot points. The lack of focus on them, the failure to allow readers to experience them firsthand, a real disappointment.
Everfair is a book which aims high and comes so tantalizingly close to completely reaching its optimistic goals. Without a doubt, this book made me analyze my own views and caused me to reflect upon the nature of humanity and our propensity to harm when we mean to help, while also entertaining me with a highly realized alternate history world with precise touches of steampunk and fantasy. However, I have to admit being disappointed by the structure of the narrative, as most of the major events happened offstage and were merely summarized for me after the fact. But this is definitely a book worth reading, especially if the premise itself appeals to you.
I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.