Everfair by Nisi Shawl: A Gorgeous, Complex, Thinky, Epic “What if?”

The history of the Belgian Congo (the Congo Free State, 1885-1908, and its successor colonial administration, the Belgian Congo) is a history of humanitarian disaster and genocide that rivals in scope some of the worst murderous excesses of the 20th century. Across a twenty-year period, the excesses of the Congo Free State were, in fact, so bad that they came under (however ineffective) international scrutiny.

Everfair is a book that takes the Belgian Congo and asks: what if? What if a group of Fabian Socialists joined forces with African American missionaries to buy land from King Leopold II of Belgian, the “owner” of the Congo, with the aim of founding a state on the model of Liberia? What if their encounter with the indigenous leadership of the Congo—as well as with Leopold’s colonial authorities—is mediated through that settler utopianism? What if the settlers joined forces with the indigenous leaders, developing airships and steam technology and defending themselves against the unrestrained violence of Leopold’s colonial administration? What happens if, over decades, both the indigenous inhabitants of the Congo and the settlers of the land they call “Everfair” try to built a state that can stand on its own, while having competing ideas of what that state is, and what it means?

I’ve never read any of Nisi Shawl’s short stories, as far as I know—but based on this, her debut novel, I’ve been missing out. Everfair is an incredibly ambitious, fascinating novel. Words like “complex” and “multifaceted” are appropriate; sprawling and dense.

Everfair has some of the props of a steampunk novel. Steam-powered bikes, for one. Airships, for another. But steampunk, as a subgenre, suffers from a paucity of imagination: it tends towards straightforward adventure stories, or slightly less straightforward mysteries, and on the whole it fails to interrogate the assumptions of nineteenth-century European and American myths of progress and of empire. Though there are a handful of exceptions, it’s rarely willing to address the underside of progress, or open up the painful can of worms that’s empire and its legacies.

Everfair isn’t straightforward. The best point of comparison for the experience of reading it, from an SFF point view, is being dropped into the middle of an epic fantasy. Multiple narrative threads, dozens of characters with their own agendas, numerous cultures, war and politics and a timeline that spans at least thirty years. At times keeping track of everyone and everything that’s going on is a little bewildering, particularly at those points where Shawl introduces magical (or magico-religious) elements into the story. (And I think the airships are nuclear-powered, though I was never quite able to figure out the details of how that would work.) Everfair isn’t the story of a single character, or a single event. It’s the story of a nation. Thematically, it’s the story of a historical moment, an ongoing conundrum, a toxic legacy: inasmuch as Everfair can be said to be any one thing, I think, it’s an argument with—and about—the intertwined problems—intertwined ideologies—of empire and white supremacy.

It’s taken me this long to bring up white supremacy in this review, because (a) I benefit from it, and (b) the comments when anyone mentions it on the internet can be a nightmare. But Everfair addresses it head-on, and doesn’t pull its punches.

The characterisation in this novel is incredible. I can lose track of all the cast, for there are so many of them, but even those who appear for the briefest moments come across as whole individuals with complex inner lives. Though for me, Everfair’s most striking character (of many) and its emotional through-line is provided by the character whose perspective opens and closes the novel. Lisette Toutournier is a Frenchwoman with one black African grandfather. (This is important, since her heritage affects her reactions, her sympathies, and her relationships throughout the novel.) Seduced by a Fabian Socialist with unconventional family arrangements, she falls in love with his wife—Daisy Albin, a white Englishwoman fifteen years her senior—and this great and abiding love is a defining constant in both their lives. Their relationship, though, is probably best characterised as “turbulent” and “periodic.” They hurt each other with assumptions. Daisy in particular hurts Lisette with her cultural assumptions about the undesirability of miscegenation, among other things. Their intimacy reflects many of the larger thematic arguments that crop up in the narrative, in ways that are more felt than seen.

While Lisette is particularly striking for me, many of the other characters are equally fascinating in different ways. Characters like Mwenda, the king of the region which Leopold sells to the settlers, and his favoured wife Josina—who is an extremely formidable diplomat and intelligence agent in her own right. Characters like Thomas Jefferson Wilson, an American missionary and former military officer who becomes the oracle of an indigenous deity, or like Ho Lin-Huang, better known as Tink, an engineer and inventor whose main area of speciality is prosthetic limbs. Daisy herself is a forceful presence, as is her elder daughter Lily, and so is Martha Livia Hunter, a formidable (I keep using that word: it fits most of the women between Everfair’s covers) African-American missionary whose vision for Everfair is rooted in her deeply Christian piety, and is thus often at odds with those who don’t share that vision.

Everfair is a deeply-thought novel, ambitious in its execution. Shawl’s prose is vivid, filled with striking images: often moving. On the other hand, the sheer sprawling density of Everfair means that its depth and richness is sometimes at odds with clarity. Its pacing, too, reflects history, with episodic peaks and troughs of intensity.

It’s a gorgeous, complex, thinky novel, engaged with meaty themes. But it requires patience and a little effort on the reader’s part, and it offers no easy conclusion. I suspect it won’t quite be to everyone‘s taste.

Still, I loved it.

Everfair is available now from Tor Books.
Read an excerpt from the novel here on Tor.com

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter.

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