by Nisi Shawl
The premise of Everfair is utterly fascinating: an alternate history that takes place in the Congo starting under the reign of the tyrannical Belgian King Leopold II and ending several decades later. As Shawl notes in the forward:
"At least half 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."
It's a story not often told, and all the more important for it. The story centers around a colony set up by a mixed bag of colonists, each who come to Africa with different aims from religious freedom to a socialist utopia. The story mixes everything from a few steampunk elements such as the mechanical replacements for the hands chopped off during Leopold's tyrannical reign to mystical elements such as interactions with gods and mind-riding of animals.
While I was captivated by the concept, my feelings about the story itself are unfortunately rather more mixed. Writing a book that spans multiple decades and dozens of characters is a tricky art, and unfortunately, at least for me, Shawl didn't quite manage it. Given that the preface provides a list of "Some Notable Characters," well over a dozen of which turn out to be perspective characters, apparently even Shawl realized her cast was overwhelming. Not only that, but given that the short character descriptions in the preface turn out to be serious plot spoilers, it's clear that Shawl expects confused readers to flip back and refresh their memories with her list. To me, that expectation already indicates a serious problem in execution.
When I got to the story itself, I was even more perplexed. Each short chapter is effectively a vignette told through the perspective of a whole host of third-person-limited narrators and spaced evenly across the four decades that the book encompasses. We are given short glimpses of the characters' lives in turn, but most of the major events of the story--the crises, the character development--happen offpage. The multi-month and multi-year time jumps don't help, either. It seemed to me that the book was stuck in a constant state of exposition, always stuck summarizing all the dramatic events that occurred since the last vignette. My inability to actually experience the events that shaped the characters gave a distant, detached feeling to the story. I heard what the characters of the previous section did, but not how they felt or why. I never felt like I knew or understood any of them, and their choices and described emotions were a perennial surprise. The characters' actions seemed to me to be driven by narrative expediency-- or to put it more generously, by whim.(show spoiler)
What I loved about the book was the way it tackled the clash of cultures and all of the wide-reaching ramifications of colonialization. The Fabian Society, a bunch of well-meaning Westerners with a socialist slant, decide to start a colony in the Congo. They purchase land and provide refuge to escaped slaves from Leopold's brutal reign, but while they speak of equality, it's not something they can really even comprehend. They impose their language, their names, and much of their culture upon the Africans they build their society with, and cannot even understand the insidious racism that colors their actions. They may call the Africans "equals," but they still find miscegenation unthinkable. They may believe they respect the languages and cultures they interact with, but of course English and Western custom must be the standard for the colony.
The perspective characters include everyone from a local king and his queen to workers who escape Leopold's vicious regime to an engineer from Macau. Much of the book deals with the rising tensions caused by the Europeans' lack of comprehension, but it also portrays characters who escape this mindset and become shaped by the world they inhabit. Overall, it's a fascinating and thought-provoking look at the inherent problems of colonialisation: even the definition of utopia is shaped by the colonists. As one character thinks:
"That was the problem. The settlers of Everfair had come here naively at best, arrogantly at worst. [...] By their very presence they poisoned what they sought to save. How could they not? Assuming they knew the best about so many things-- not even realizing they had made such assumptions-- they acted without considering other viewpoints and remained in ignorance in spite of the broadest hints."
Everfair definitely made me think. I just wish it had also made me feel. For me, the series of vignettes gave the book a stilted, disjointed feeling that in turn hindered my ability to relate to the characters. Most of the big events and character emotions happened offpage and were summarized via exposition. However, if the structure appeals to you more than it did to me, Everfair is well worth a look.
~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Macmillan-Tor/Forge, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~
Cross-posted on Goodreads.