Nisi Shawl is a friend, and when she gave me an advance copy of her new book, I was delighted. I waited until I had real down time to read and review it, and I’m very glad I did.
Everfair, a beautifully written and imagined novel, is the best book I’ve read in a long time.
The last novel to engross me this much was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which won the Booker prize in 2009. The two books share an historical believability and a vivid and immersive reality of time and place. Wolf Hall is about an alien time (16th Century England), Everfair about an alien and alternative time (1889-1919). The core of the novel is set in Equatorial Africa, and includes stories that extend to other parts of the world. When I read it, I see the people and their environments with an almost photographic gaze. Shawl has the rare gift of creating a fully realized universe.
Unlike most stories in western literature that involve both black and white characters, this is a genuine Black African story, with significant non-African characters, black, white, and asian. The novel is an alternative history to the tragic, murderous colonial story of the Belgian Congo and the death of millions; a story that continues to haunt and reverberate in horrific ways in the modern Congo. In today’s publishing world, Shawl’s tale is a neo-Victorian steampunk alternate history. Shawl is entirely successful in these genres, and in transcending them as well.
Everfair has steampunk battles, romance, international intrigue and politics, evil corporations, spies, family stories, complicated love, and ritual magic fused with steampunk tech.
Shawl has created a complex, tightly woven tapestry that blends history, events and relationships in ways that are difficult to unravel and do justice to in a book review. The novel is a complex human story that blends equatorial African history and religions, Fabian Socialism, African royalty and leadership, colonialism, the Black Diaspora, African ritual magic, Christianity and steampunk science.
Unlike most stories in western literature that involve black and white characters, this is a Black African story, with significant black, white, asian non-African characters.
In her unsentimental novel, Shawl does not indulge in either the pornography of pain and terror or the sentimental pornography of romance, though her story is filled with both. Her characters are all determined to do the right thing, but she is constantly aware that the right thing depends so much on who you are and how you see the world. She deals brilliantly with the complexities of class, and conscious and unconscious racism, and how they affect love and relationships.
My favorite part of the uses of steampunk tech are the remarkable clockwork hand and arm prosthetics used by many of her African characters. (The Belgians punished almost all infractions with amputation of a limb or a hand.) I wish they existed in the real world.
One of the goals of science fiction is to present the possibility of alternative values and ways of being. Shawl succeeds both in her alternate history and in her alternative story about how humans behave and can behave. Violence and conflict are integral to her story, but the power of human cooperation and hope are central to the outcome. In a nuanced and real way, Everfair is not only an excellent book, it is also a hopeful one.
Nisi Shawl says: “I like to think that with a nudge or two events might have played out much more happily for the inhabitants of Equatorial Africa. They might have enjoyed a prosperous future filled with all the technology that delights current steampunk fans in stories of western Europe and North America. And more. In Everfair they do.”
Everfair – Nisi Shawl, TOR Books, September 2016