My appetite for Nisi Shawl’s Everfair has gone up and down since I first heard of it. It came highly recommended by multiple sources and ticked off so many intriguing boxes: a speculative, steampunk alternative history of an African nation by a woman of color. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. After I bought it earlier this spring, I noticed the Goodreads collective rating was on the low-ish side, and I’m not always as immune to popular opinion as I like to think I am. It sat on my shelf for two months, until after I finally watched Black Panther, and then the excitement was back on.
A group of socialist Europeans raise funds to buy a portion of the Congo from the Belgian king, Leopold, with the intent to build a free, advanced nation in Africa. With help from some freed American slaves, Chinese railroad workers who abandoned their jobs, and a handful of Europeans, Shawl takes us through the stuttering birth and youth of the new nation, christened Everfair by one of the European women. They’re almost immediately attacked by Leopold’s loyalists, who refuse to cede their territory and access to natural resources, particularly their own version of black gold: rubber.
One of the Chinese men works together with a few of the Americans to build zeppelin-like airships with compact engines powered by mysterious rare earths, and after many ups and downs, the fledgling nation gets to its feet only to be caught between factions in World War I. Once they finally emerge from the Great War, they’re plunged into further chaos by the great influenza epidemic of 1918 and a civil war instigated by the stubborn, entitled local king.
Unfortunately, it’s a big mess. Shawl delivers the narrative in short chapters averaging 5 pages that jump between locations, characters, and narrative focus, and it’s nearly impossible to keep track of where they are and how much time has passed. Much of the real action takes place off-screen between chapters, so much so that I often found myself looking through previous pages to see if I’d missed something, wondering if actual pages were missing from my copy. Too often, just as the action is getting interesting, it skips ahead and shifts away to the romantic lives and petty quarrels of the characters. Creating even more of a drag, the prose has a kind of quasi-archaic syntax that doesn’t flow well, and the mannered narration often cuts out in mid-thought, becoming an annoying tick.
The oddest thing for me is that so little of the jacket blurb comes through in the actual narrative. Much of the book focuses on the European characters and their role in founding and sustaining this new African nation, pushing the African characters to mostly supporting roles. I kept anticipating a shift to the African characters, a shift that sadly never comes, all the more surprising since the author is African-American. The same was true of the steampunk elements that didn’t emerge until well into the book and then stagnated after a few innovations were introduced.
As with Pachinko a few weeks earlier, Everfair was a frustrating read that failed to live up to its promise and left me wishing for a better platform for the underlying ideas. I wish Shawl had spent far more time on the speculative elements and alternative history and African characters. I wish more action had taken place in the actual narrative. I wish there was a better sense of development and continuity rather than the halting, hard-to-follow vignette structure. I wish I could recommend this book with the excitement I had going in, but I can’t. I do, however, believe there’s a lot to respect here, and this book may connect for others in a way that it just didn’t for me.