Oh man, I was so excited to read Everfair. It won or was nominated for basically every major speculative fiction award. And the premise is just awesome — a reimagining of the history of the Belgian colonization of the Congo, where Afrofuturistic steampunk technology turns the region’s history away from the atrocities committed by King Leopold.
Buttttt … well, let me pull out a couple of threads from this — and I mean this earnestly — this incredibly idea-rich, epic work.
The book is told in short chapters in tight third person limited, giving us at least one chapter from the perspective of a large population of different characters. AT LEAST eleven POVs, which is where I stopped counting. It is insanely difficult to define eleven-plus distinctive narrative voices in a novel-length work, and it’s to Shawl’s credit that they actually mostly succeed. However some of the characters seem just … empty. Or inconsistent, or like ciphers where This Plot Must Happen and I Guess You Are The Character It Happens To.
Like, take Lisette Toutournier, who provides the opening and closing chapter POV. What does she want? What does she care about? Well, we meet her as a teenager in France, riding her bike, and reveling in the freedom she feels when she rides. We get a sense that she longs for freedom, escape, adventure. Great! And early in the book, she takes action to pursue those things. And then, [SPOILERS], she falls in love with someone pretty random (as in, not someone especially associated with freedom or adventure etc, just someone she comes across in the course of living) and … most of the rest of her story is about where she is in relation to this person. She has what would seem to be big adventures — she travels the world! she does spy stuff! But it’s all framed as, she does this to avoid being close to her love after an estrangement, not, she realized her love sucked and was like Fuck This Noise Bye. The very last image of the book is Lisette waiting for her love to come join her, and then, she does, the end. Sorry, her “imperfect love” like, no kidding Lisette, next time Choose You. Or don’t, but then don’t have your character defined around longing for freedom and then wrap your life around an asshole. That is not just bad decisioning it is also false advertising and I resent old-you’s choices on behalf of young-you. [/SPOILERS]
I was also a little bummed at how little the steampunk ended up actually mattering. By far the biggest diversion from reality was, not any technological difference, but that a society of utopian idealists purchased a chunk of the Congo from Leopold, and the steampunky bits were ancillary. I will say that the varied & capable prosthetics worn by the characters who had lost hands to Leopold’s brutality were extremely cool and neat, even though their use in-story was pretty superficial. I was also really interested in an avenue that Shawl lightly explores quite late in the book, namely, that the utopians who originally get rid of Leopold/the Belgians and establish a new integrated country, welcome refugees, etc … those guys are colonizers, too. What is their place? They’re better to have around than Leopold … that can’t be the bar, though, right?
The more I’m writing in this review the more it sounds like I hated this book or think it’s bad, and that is emphatically not the case. It didn’t really hit for me, and I’m a little sad about that because I was so pumped for it beforehand, but whatcha gonna do? If you’re still interested in the premise, you may well enjoy it or at least be glad you read it — despite all I say above, I am — just be aware going in that it’s a very very spread out alternate history with very very light speculative elements. If that sounds intriguing, go for it, and you probably will have a good time.