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


By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

In my head, this and Dodger are sort of a set, since they were written at roughly the same time and are both YA books. But while I read the latter years ago, I’ve never quite got around to Nation, until now. But goodness me, I’m glad I did! Mau is on his way back from the Boys’ Island, having completed the task that will make him a man, when a tidal wave destroys his island Nation and everyone he knew, leaving him alone. But it also wrecked a ship, leaving a single survivor: a teenage girl who was voyaging to join her father who is governor of a British colony in the “Great Southern Pegalic Ocean”. Together, they welcome other survivors from the seas and try to build something good.

There’s a lot to unpack in this novel, and I think it will need reread at some point. At this point in his life, Pratchett had a lot on his mind, and some of those themes find their way into the book: what it feels like when your expected future has been taken away from you; religion and its purpose in the world; what it means to be a nation. Mau and Daphne are great protagonists, very different from each other, but complementary to what the other needs at this moment. I am reminded of Granny and Tiffany in Daphne, while Mau has shades of Vimes’ anger and determination.

The book is set in a sort of alt-hist Victorian era, with a British Empire, but other aspects of the world are different. And the shades of the past elders talk (although whether they have anything worth listening to is another matter).

Sometimes there’s not a huge amount of subtlety in the metaphors, such as when the British mutineers show up. They’re there pretty much to bang you over the head with the idea that that “civilised” and “savage” are defined by actions, not in dress or technology.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and appreciated a lot of its themes. While I wasn’t hugely fond of most of the Discworld novels written in his later life, between this, Dodger, and the Tiffany Aching books, his YA work sparkled.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552557795
Publisher: Corgi Childrens
Year of publication: 2009

The Calcutta Chromosome

By Amitav Ghosh

Rating: 3 stars

This alt history re-examines the discovery of how malaria is carried and transmitted. It was discovered by Dr Ronald Ross in the 1890s, but this book posits the question of what he he didn’t do it on his own, but was prompted in that direction, by some unknown force?

In the near-ish future, Antar, a worker for the International Water Council, discovers the damaged ID card of a former colleague who was obsessed with Ross and his work, but who disappeared and starts investigating. We spend time with said colleague (L. Murugan), in long flashbacks, as well as some of the people Murugan encounters in that time.

There’s a fair amount of exposition in the book, coming mostly from Murugan, and yet, despite that, it still manages to be confusing and open-ended. It’s very well-written and easy to read, but I had trouble following the layers of the mystery, and I don’t think the end really pulled it together at all. Murugan is eccentric, but quite a likeable character as he powers around Calcutta, scattering people in his wake, trying to solve the mystery.

To be honest, I’m not sure that the top level of the nested structure, with Antar in the “present” added much to the story. I found the lack of closure frustrating, but was kept going all the way through it. Not sure I’d read it again though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781848544154
Publisher: John Murray
Year of publication: 2011

Superman: Red Son

By Mark Millar

Rating: 4 stars

I rather enjoyed this “what if” story, asking the question of what would happen if the infant Superman had crashed in the Soviet Union rather than the US. It starts in the 1950s when Superman has come into his powers and is working for the Soviet authorities, under Stalin, and charts his rise and eventual fall, alongside Lex Luthor. Other superheroes also turn up, both Wonder Woman and Batman, both reimagined in some sort of Russian context (I don’t care what anyone says, Batman’s furry hat is adorable, and very practical) as well as Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen.

I like how Miller has played on the tension between the sort of world that Superman is born into and his fundamental good nature, a nature that just wants to help people. The idea of what help means is drawn out, as Superman comes to believe that in order to help people, he has to take the very Soviet view of creating order, sort of the antithesis of American individualism.

The battle of wits that goes on between Superman in Russian and Luther in America is well played too, lasting decades, as Luther goes from a well-balanced scientist into full scheming megalomaniac mode, in his attempts to bring down Superman.

So all in, a nice alt-hist with a very neat twist at the end of the story.

Book details

ISBN: 9781840238013
Publisher: Titan Books (UK)
Year of publication: 2003

Grandville Mon Amour (Grandville #2)

By Bryan Talbot

Rating: 4 stars

I read Grandville a few years ago and was immediately impressed by the vivid and quite stunning artwork, the sense of scale, the world-building of the alt-history, oh, and the random anthropomorphic animals. This sequel lives up to its predecessor in all those respects and more.

This time Detective Inspector Le Brock must chase down a dangerous fanatical criminal, who was once a hero of the British rebellion against their French masters. “Mad Dog” Mastock has escaped from the Tower just before his execution and Le Brock must pursue. The trail leads him, and his faithful sidekick Detective Sergeant Ratzi, back to Grandville: the great city of Paris, where high-class prostitutes are being murdered and a conspiracy that stretches back to the liberation of Britain.

The art continues to enthral me. Both the style and the vividness are a joy to behold. The anthropomorphised characters always keep you slightly off-balance, in a good way, and I quite like the fact that it’s never really commented on, except in an occasional good-natured insult (“Catch, Beaky” to a vulture, for example). The world itself is deepened as we see more of the history between Britain and France and the war of independence.

The book isn’t long, I finished it in just under an hour, but it is definitely worth savouring. I’ll definitely be rereading the series and I look forward to picking up the next volume in the series as well.

Book details

ISBN: 9780224090001
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Year of publication: 2006

Bitter Seeds

By Ian Tregillis

Rating: 3 stars

As the shadow of war looms over Europe in 1939, Britain is worried. The Nazis have some sort of secret programme that produces men and women who can fly, turn invisible, and move. They are forced to turn to their own dark secrets to fight this menace, but is the price worth paying?

I dunno, I feel like I should have enjoyed this mash-up of psychic powers and magic more than I did, especially when they started changing the established history of the war (having a precog available means that you can do things like foresee the Dunkirk evacuation of your enemies and plan accordingly…) but it fell somewhat flat for me. I don’t know if it was the relentless grimness of it – the British magic in particular was grim stuff indeed, raising questions of what people will do to defend their country, and possibly turning into something not worth saving in the process. I also liked the idea of the Eidolons (malevolent creatures outside of time and space that can manipulate it beyond the laws of physics; sort of like Terry Pratchett’s Auditors of Reality) and that warlocks don’t perform magic, they negotiate with the Eidolons to do it for them.

Having a POV character in the Nazi camp also showed that these people aren’t the monsters that they were portrayed as and although Klaus was never a ‘hero’ the stuff he and the others of his unit did wasn’t that much worse than the warlocks.

So lots of interesting ideas, but I still have no desire to read the sequel.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356501697
Publisher: Orbit Books
Year of publication: 2010

The Difference Engine

By William Gibson

Rating: 3 stars

Authored by two of the greats of the genre, this steampunk novel has a lot to live up to, something that I fear that it doesn’t necessarily achieve. It tells the story of three people whose lives intertwine at different points, alongside a mysterious box of cards, that some people are willing to kill for.

The history in this book deviates from our own in the 1830s, when Charles Babbage perfects his difference engine and then his analytical engine, ushering in the age of computing a hundred years early.

The world-building is flawless. Never infodumping, but it drip-feeds you enough information about this world, with Lord Byron as Prime Minister, and its Time of Troubles, after which a meritocracy rose in Britain, sweeping aside the old order, but I’m not convinced by the story itself. The box of cards (a program for one of the Engines of the title), is pretty much a macguffin, and the explanation of what it is, right at the end of the book, is a bit of a let-down, to be honest.

Of the three protagonists, Sybil Gerard is possibly the most interesting, although the least developed. Daughter of a noted Luddite, she starts the book as a fallen woman, finding herself being drawn into these affairs through one her politician gentlemen. Her story is then dropped and only picked up again sort of sideways, through the eyes of Laurence Oliphant, diplomat, spy and another of our protagonists.

Our third protagonist, Edward Mallory, gets the lion’s share of the narrative, coping through the Great Stink and trying to find the shadowy group who are trying to steal the box of cards that he has in his possession. This is possibly the least satisfying aspect of the story. The group chasing Mallory is never clearly defined, nor are their goals, and the final showdown with them, feels underwhelming.

So a fun romp through a well-realised steampunk world, which effortlessly mixes historical characters with invented ones, but one in which the story doesn’t entirely come together for me.

Book details

ISBN: 9780553294613
Publisher: Spectra Books
Year of publication: 1990

West of Eden (West of Eden, #1)

By Harry Harrison

Rating: 3 stars

This book posits the question: what would have happened if the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs had never occurred. It answers that a sentient species, the Yilanè would have appeared. It further posits that a North America that was isolated from the rest of the world (the land bridge of central America being submerged for some time) would have harboured mammals that would eventually have evolved into humans. This book tells of the first Yilanè attempt to colonise the new world and the clash of cultures that occurred when they encountered sentient mammals.

The Yilanè of this book in some ways reminded me a lot of ‘the folk’ of John Brunner’s The Crucible of Time: they are a believable alien race, with advanced biotechnology and an inability to lie, albeit with a huge side-order of xenophobia. Although to be fair, this is very much reciprocated by the (hunter-gatherer) humans they encounter. The first instinct of the hunter was to kill them all and stomp the young underfoot. This sets up the pattern for what follows: you killed us, so we must kill you because you killed us because…

Our protagonist through the story is a young boy named Kerrick. With him, we follow the familiar story of a boy kidnapped at a young age, raised with his captors in their language, believing himself to be one of them until he rediscovers his roots, kills the Yilanè around him and returns to his people. In this case, to be their advisor on all things Yilanè and how to kill them. Oh, and with some added inter-species sex (consent uncertain) before enlightenment.

In a lot of ways, this is a frustrating book. At no time do the two species ever attempt to negotiate or to talk to one another. They are both convinced that they other must be wiped off the face of the earth (or, at least the continent). In a tribe of hunter-gatherers, I can almost understand this, but the Yilanè have been civilised for millennia, and should really know better.

Still, there’s a core of a fun adventure story in this book, even if attempts at genocide, with varying degrees of success, do leave a bit of a sour taste in the mouth.

Book details

ISBN: 9780586057810
Publisher: Panther Books Limited
Year of publication: 1984

Century Rain

By Alastair Reynolds

Rating: 5 stars

Verity Auger is an archaeologist searching for artefacts in the ruins of a post-Nanocaust Earth when a mistake nearly costs the life of a young boy. Her boss uses this as leverage to get her involved in a secret project that involves illicit travel through an ancient alien hyperspace transit network controlled by a different faction of Humanity.

At the other end of the transit wormhole is an unpolluted Earth of three hundred years ago, except that in that world, the Second World War never happened. Auger must find the papers left behind by her predecessor, Susan White, who appears to have been murdered, and with a tenacious private detective and some seriously freaky children on her tail, that’s not going to be easy.

I really enjoyed this part space-opera and part alternative history novel. Despite (or perhaps because of) her prejudices, Auger is an interesting character, and I enjoyed some of the back story of the book, including the splitting into two factions: the Threshers, who reject nanotech and prefer to stay on the “threshold” of advanced technology; and the Slashers, who have gone whole hog and are now surrounded by a cloud of nanotech, surrounding and enhancing them at all times. Seeing Auger cope with an alternative 1950s France is fun, and the jazz-loving private detective, Wendell Floyd is a great character too.

There’s perhaps some comparison with Nausicaä (which I’ve been reading recently) too, with Auger’s Earth being a warning of what can happen when Humanity tinkers too much with nature (the Nanocaust was caused by nanotech released into the atmosphere to control the weather that got out of control and eventually consumed every living creature on the planet). The story was tightly told with information being dripped out at just the right rate to avoid being infodump or getting too frustrating. An enjoyable book.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575076914
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
Year of publication: 2004

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