Nisi Shawl’s debut novel, ‘Everfair’. is a fantastically intricate portrayal of the birth of a free state in the heart of Africa and its fight for survival against the brutal regime of Belgian King Leopold. The classic steampunk tropes of Victorian Britain are transported to the burgeoning state of Everfair and the neighbouring Congo and adapted to the tropical climate and local materials and culture. It’s a magical, complex, sometimes brutal but ultimately optimistic story of how things could have been if the right people had been involved and if the marvels of steampunk had been there to help them.
The story is presented in snapshots spread months apart, each focusing on one of a number of different characters. Each chapter deals with a significant episode in the formation of Everfair and its on-going struggle to define itself, battle against prejudice and oppression and deal with its own internal struggles to integrate its diverse populace. The story takes a fairly sedentary pace to start with, moving from one incident to the next and illuminating the nation’s history by way of personal interrelationships, disagreements and tragedies. Slowly, almost unnoticeably, the history of this nation and its people crept up on me until I became entirely enthralled by the story and keen to know what would happen next, how the complex political and personal relationships would work out and whether the fragile nation could hold itself together.
One of the things that makes this book particularly powerful is the diverse cast of characters that tackle the complex issues of discrimination, ignorance and cultural clashes. The original founders of Everfair are rich Europeans who buy a vast tract of land from King Leopold and set up a state where the local inhabitants from numerous tribes and languages can live in freedom from colonial governments and particularly in safety from the cruel tyranny of the Belgian Congo. All this is great and magnanimous but, of course, the locals eventually point out that the land had been originally stolen by King Leopold, so wasn’t his to sell. Even as assumptions, superior attitudes and groundless prejudices are challenged throughout the book, I found myself reassessing my own opinion of what various factions had done and said. The European settlers seem unable to shake off their colonial superiority, despite the fact that they have good intentions and even the descendants of former slaves from America who join the colony bring their own prejudices against interracial marriage, heathen religions and eating arrangements. Nisi Shawl’s writing subtly yet inexorably challenges our preconceptions of both history and of the steampunk genre.
One of the central characters is Tink, a Chinese engineer and inventor who has escaped from building a Congolese railroad and turns his hand to wonderful steampunk devices. Prosthetic limbs are in great demand for escaped slaves but airships or air canoes in this case, are soon under construction as well as numerous other steam-powered conveniences. This aspect also highlights the originality and realism of this book. Steampunk is not imported wholesale from Victorian Britain, but is adapted to the local conditions. The society and its customs, as well as the climate, inform the kind of technology that is needed and the way that it is used.
However big the settlements grow and the country develops, it is still a land of jungle with flight times measured in days between the various towns.
The on-going struggle against neighbouring King Leopold’s tyranny and later the influence of the Great War bring an international feel to the book. Espionage, diplomacy and international travel take some of the characters far and wide in an effort to secure their country’s future.
This book is a wonder to read: complex, eye-opening, tragic. It never fails to maintain its grip, to sustain a sense of realism and grittiness that tie together its disparate ingredients. Nisi Shawl’s writing subtly yet inexorably challenges our preconceptions of both history and of the steampunk genre. The history of Everfair is a grand one and gives birth to an entirely new blend of steampunk that is enormously satisfying.
Gareth D Jones
(pub: TOR/Forge. 381 page small hardback. Price: $26.99 (US), $37.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-3805-1)
check out website: www.tor-forge.com