A Take on African Steampunk: A Review of Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Everfair (2016)
Written by: Nisi Shawl
Pages: 383 (Hardcover)
Publisher: Tor Books

Why I Chose It: This novel has caught my eye since it was released because of the alternate history premise (outside of speculative fiction, I’m a huge fan of historical fiction) and the African setting. Also, the cover is gorgeous.

The premise:

An alternate history/historical fantasy/steampunk novel set in the Belgian Congo, from noted short story writer Nisi Shawl.

Everfair is a wonderful Neo-Victorian alternate history novel that explores the question of what might have come of Belgium’s disastrous colonization of the Congo if the native populations had learned about steam technology a bit earlier. Fabian Socialists from Great Britian join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s “owner,” King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.

Shawl’s speculative masterpiece manages to turn one of the worst human rights disasters on record into a marvelous and exciting exploration of the possibilities inherent in a turn of history. Everfair is told from a multiplicity of voices: Africans, Europeans, East Asians, and African Americans in complex relationships with one another, in a compelling range of voices that have historically been silenced. Everfair is not only a beautiful book but an educational and inspiring one that will give the reader new insight into an often ignored period of history.

Spoiler free review below!


Discussion: I have a confession to make. It might mean that you think I’m crazy or certainly “not with it,” but I have to preface this review by saying I actually don’t like steampunk fiction. Even though I like the time period of steampunk, the references to Victorian age, and the fantastical nature, I have not read a single steampunk novel that I truly enjoyed. I gave up on it a long time ago.

That said, when I saw this book, it intrigued me. I so badly wanted to read a steampunk novel alternate history set during the Belgian colonization of the Congo; I wanted to see steampunk subvert colonialism and challenge our views of history. I was not disappointed.

Everfair follows a giant cast of characters. Each chapter features a point of view of one of them, jumping around to different locations (Belgium, the UK, Congo) and years. In just under 400 pages the novel spans approximately 30 years and so it moves quite fast. I’ve read some complaints about this format, that it jumps too much and follows too many characters, but I don’t agree with those. As someone who reads a lot of historical fiction this format is not uncommon. Of course, there were characters that I resonated with more than others and would have liked to have seen more chapters with them, but I still found the plot gripping and easy to lose myself in.

One of those characters I came to really like was Daisy Albin. After the unfortunate circumstance of being abandoned by her husband, she, a founding citizen of Everfair, and her children stay in the Congo along with her lover, Lissette. Daisy is a mother, a poet, a strong woman, and I could have read a whole book from her point of view. She also represents another strength of Shawl’s novel: diversity of representation. There are Africans, British, Belgians, Chinese, mixed race and lesbian characters all packed into this story which all added to the historical value.

Regarding the historical references to the Belgian colonization of the Congo, I don’t feel I can comment much since I am not familiar with the history, so I can’t say if there were any hits or misses here. As for the steampunk, there was definitely references to the genre with flying canoes and brass prosthetic limbs, but it seemed these elements were not front and center as the the characters were. This might have been why I really enjoyed this book despite having issues with steampunk in the past.

In Conclusion: I heartily enjoyed Everfair. I can easily see why it has been nominated for the Nebula for Best Novel. If you love steampunk, go directly to the library or bookstore, do not pass go, do not pick up $200 dollars. If you’re more of an historical fiction aficionado, still pick up this book.

As for the Nebulas, I have read two other nominees for Best Novel: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin, and Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. Even though I enjoyed Everfair greatly, I think that either of those two novels have a better chance of winning. I personally loved The Obelisk Gate and think Jemisin is writing some of the most important SF/F today. However, objectively, I think Ninefox Gambit is going to take it because what Lee has done is so unique and innovative. Also, I think it’s less likely that Jemisin’s novel will be awarded since it is the second in her trilogy.

1 Comment

  • Lane Robins May 23, 2017 at 7:03 pm

    I kept meaning to read this but kept bouncing off the beginning chapter. But if you say there are new POVs per chapter, I’ll have to give it another try!

    Reply

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