Everfair: A Novel

By Nisi Shawl

Rating: 3 stars

This (very busy) novel came to my attention after it was mentioned on the Imaginary Worlds podcast, in their post-colonial worlds episode. The central what-if is: what if Fabian socialists from Britain join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s “owner,” King Leopold II. This land, (Everfair), is set aside as a safe haven for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.

As I said above, there’s a lot going on in this novel. There’s a large cast of characters, and it spans about thirty years, covering the creation of Everfair, and its early years. Each chapter jumps around in time and place, jumping into little scenes from the country’s history. Especially once we leave Britain for Everfair, I often found it difficult to keep track of what was going on. You’re left to infer a lot through context, and I sometimes wished for a more traditional omniscient narrator who could pause for a moment to give you a larger scale overview of what was going on.

Into the alt history, we also add steampunk, as the melting pot that is Everfair brings forth airships, powered by some sort of mystic power source that’s lighter than coal, giving them the edge over Europeans. And then there’s the magical element, with the missionary Thomas Wilson being turned, somewhat against his will, into a priest of a god called Loango, and the exiled king whose spirit-father advises him. These aren’t just metaphorical – Loango actually gives Thomas the power to influence battles, amongst other things. So we have alt-history, steampunk, and magic all mashed together, with a narrative that stays very close to the people it’s following, without zooming out. This makes it feel quite claustrophobic at times, and quite choppy.

The technology isn’t really described (I do like a bit of tech porn!) and even the big idea – that of new ideas coming out of the melting pot that is Everfair – was hinted at rather than spelled out. I still have no idea what the “Bah-Sangah” earths, that were core to the airships, were (or, what Bah-Sangah itself was, come to that – was it a religion? A magical creature? A god?), and large swathes of the politics are, similarly, only lightly touched upon. There’s a lot to like here, but the book did leave me a bit frustrated. 3.5 stars, rounded down.

Book details

ISBN: 9780765338068
Publisher: Tor Books
Year of publication: 2017

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