Fascinating Idea, So-So Execution
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)
Ever fair, ever fair my home;
Ever fair land, so sweet—
Ever are you calling home your children;
We hear and answer swiftly as thought, as fleet.
Tyrants and cowards, we fear them no more;
Behold, your power protects us from harm;
We live in freedom by sharing all things equally—
We live in peace within your loving arms.
Leopold II of Belgium founded the Congo Free State in Central Africa in 1885. Ostensibly established as a humanitarian and philanthropic venture, Leopold instead exploited the land and people as a personal venture. Indigenous workers were forced to harvest ivory, rubber, and minerals. Failure to meet quotas was punishable by death, so proven by delivery of the offender’s hand – leading to a rash of mutilations, as villages attacked one another to procure limbs in anticipation of not meeting Leopold’s unreasonable demands. Between murder, starvation, disease, and a drastically reduced birth rate, countless indigenous Africans perished under Leopold’s short rule; some estimates put the death rate as high as 50%. Due to international criticism, Belgium annexed the Congo Free State and assumed control of its administration in 1908, after which time it became known as the Belgian Congo.
Turning her lens on “one of history’s most notorious atrocities,” Nisi Shawl looks at what might have become of the Congo Free State, if white socialists from England and African-American missionaries had united to purchase land from King Leopold II, making it a haven for free blacks, “enlightened” whites, and Chinese and African refugees from Leopold’s reign of terror. Picture an eclectic fusion of Western, Asian, and African cultural practices, politics, and religious beliefs, all made more prosperous – and feasible – through fantastical steampunk technologies: aircanoes capable of transcontinental flight (and easily weaponized); mechanical clockwork prosthetics (also made deadly with the addition of knives, flamethrowers, and poisoned darts); steam-powered bikes; and Victorian-era computers, to name a few.
Though you’re probably imagining a Utopia, Everfair is often anything but, as it wars with the back-stabbing King Leopold; tries to evade his enforcers while offering aid to his victims; fights for international recognition and support; and maintains an uneasy truce between its many factions. Tensions reach a breaking point when the Allies and Central Powers pressure Everfair into entering World War I; its citizens hail from countries on both (and neither) side of the conflict.
Everfair is an object lesson on the pitfalls of good intentions. While their goal is admirable, the founders of Everfair began their “free state” on land stolen from the native populations; King Leopold had no right to sell it, since it was never really his to begin with. Their endeavor is characterized by equal parts optimism and arrogance, as the Westerners impose their culture, in varying measures, on their fellow immigrants and native-born Africans. The Christian missionary Martha Hunter forgoes medical supplies in lieu of more Bibles, with which to convert the “heathens and savages” – for isn’t the eternal soul of more consequence than the mortal body? They declare English the official language, instate a representative democracy (in which the native King Mwenda and his favored wife Josina only get a vote each, much to his chagrin), and consider recognizing a national holiday, to boost morale. Founder’s Day, to commemorate the death of the Fabian Society’s Jackie Owen, who was instrumental in procuring the funds needed to buy Everfair’s land. This last is the final straw for Mwenda, who is incensed at the implication that his kingdom ceased to exist before the arrival of these foreigners.
Yet King Mwenda was himself a new-ish transplant to the area, having only conquered the previous inhabitants several years prior. And while he was more than happy to accept Everfair’s help in vanquishing King Leopold and building a prosperous community, both thanks in no small part to their innovative technologies, he has little problem exiling Everfair’s foreign-born citizens when they’re no longer needed. One of Everfair’s citizens even died while rescuing Mwenda; and, when he lost a hand during his captivity, its engineers supplied him with a wardrobe’s worth of shiny new mechanical hands.
Mwenda was right. Everyone was right. That was the problem.
While I love the idea behind Everfair, the execution doesn’t quite live up to Shawl’s grand vision. The story is very slow to unfold; it feels much longer than its 384 pages. With its colorful cast of characters, Everfair feels like it should be a character-driven story. Yet I often had trouble figuring out a character’s motivations or desires. More than once, a protagonist’s views underwent a drastic, 180-degree flip – with no real explanation why. Sometimes I was able to read between the lines (as with white-passing Lisette’s decision to embrace her African heritage) but other times I was just left scratching my head (e.g., Thomas’s rejection of Jesus Christ for the god Loango). It doesn’t help that each chapter jumps forward in time, anywhere from one month to ten years at a go. There are just so many characters – not to mention the tech, which I didn’t totally get, especially in relation to the airships – that the narrative is spread too thin between them all.
Of all the characters and their complicated connections to one another, I found Daisy and Lisette the most compelling. More than any other, their relationship perfectly encapsulates the conflicts and contradictions inherent in Everfair.
In addition to the alternate history and steampunk elements, there’s a touch of the supernatural in the form of the natives’ religious beliefs – or rather, how they play out in the physical world. This is always really hit-or-miss with me: superimposed on an otherwise realistic setting, supernatural embellishments can either be really very magical…or incite an exaggerated eye roll. Here they just add an extra layer of confusion to the proceedings.
In this vein, the writing is confusing in some places; more than once I found myself rereading certain passages to make sense of them. The language is a little quaint, too, which doesn’t help. Overall it feels like a sprawling epic, minus the epic part. Which is a shame, because the concept is just bursting with potential.
It seems like I’m in the minority, though, so don’t be afraid to give it a go – especially if alternate history, historical fiction, and/or steampunk is your jam. Bonus points for the amazing amount of diversity that Shawl brings to the table.