Women’s Book March: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

My first read for the Women’s Book March challenge is Everfair by Nisi Shawl! This steampunk alternate history re-imagines the Belgian Congo if King Leopold’s colonizing forces had been repelled by an alliance of native Congolese, African-American missionaries, and British socialists who then establish their own independent, multi-ethnic country, Everfair.

Say what? If the above seems baffling, you’re not alone. I was only vaguely aware of the history of Belgium’s colonization of the region of Africa now called the Congo. Nisi Shawl lays out the facts in brief but horrific detail in her opening to the book:

This novel derives from one of history’s most notorious atrocities: King Leopold II’s reign over the Congo Free State. The exact number of casualties is unknown, but conservative estimates admit that at least half of the populace disappeared in the period from 1895 to 1908. The area thus devastated was about a quarter of the size of the current continental United States. Millions of people died.

The steampunk genre often works as a form of alternate history, showing us how small changes to what actually happened might have resulted in momentous differences … This is that kind of book.

The result is an original, and at times deeply weird, story that unfolds from multiple perspectives over thirty years from 1889 to 1919. The alternate history aspects are deftly balanced with the steampunk, as well as some fantasy elements inspired by Congolese folklore. We see the newly minted Everfair through ups and downs, from its victory (at high cost) over the Belgian colonizers, to its dilemma over whom to side with in WW1, to internal racial tensions that threaten to tear the country apart.

I thought the steampunk elements were very neat: people who suffered amputations at the hands of rubber barons get modular bronze prosthetic arms and hands; airships are a common form of transport; and factories turn out shonguns–based on a traditional Congolese bronze knife, the shongo, these are guns that shoot knives. How cool is that?

At less than 400 pages, Everfair sometimes feels too short for its ambitious concept. The chapters unfold more like vignettes, separated from each other by months and sometimes years, than a single continuous narrative. The cast is huge, and though the characterizations we do get in each brief chapter are very good, at times I wanted to spend more time with a character to learn what makes them tick. There were a couple instances when characters had revelations “offscreen” which affected their perspectives or actions, and I would have liked to see those revelations play out on the page.

All in all, I really enjoyed Everfair. Even though I wanted more, what’s here is lush and beautifully written and thought provoking. If you dig alternate history, steampunk, or stories told from points of view not usually represented–or all of these!–check this book out.

Already read Everfair? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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