Eddie Izzard explains colonization in such a way that it highlights the absurdity of people just showing up on a coast and claiming it in spite of the fact that people already lived in that area. As I read Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, I was reminded of Izzard remarking on British colonists’ “cunning use of flags.” In the opening chapters of this alternate history, the same plot of land in what is, in our reality, southern Congo is claimed by three different groups: King Mwenda and his tribe, the Belgians, and the Everfair colonists. Mwenda’s people have been in that part of the world for as long as they can remember but, in the world’s eyes, the land belongs to the Belgians, who can sell it off to the Everfair colonists through the cunning use of paper. By telling us the story of the people who live on this contested land, Shawl raises the matter of flags to a high-stakes human drama.
At first, Everfair is bewildering. Shawl introduces us to character after character. Some are trying to get Everfair off the ground (Everfair is the name the colonists choose for their new “country.”) Others are trying to get rid of the Belgians. Still other characters are just trying to find a place for themselves in the world. Until the plot really gets rolling, when everyone goes to war with everyone else, it’s hard to tell who to pay attention to. Some characters, like Lisette Toutournier or Tink, were more interesting to me, but they aren’t always the movers and shakers in Shawl’s world.
Everfair covers the history of the colony from the 1880s through the end of World War I. The cast never really gets winnowed down but, as I spent more time with each character, I felt like I started to get a handle on the story. That said, I think Everfair would have been more effective if the cast had been smaller or if Shawl hadn’t been trying to cram so many sub-genres into the setting. As it is, there are times when the book feels like it’s trying to be a history text with dialogue and steampunk elements.
The fact that Everfair takes place in a completely different location from most alternate histories and steampunk novels was my favorite thing about the book. In spite of its unwieldiness, this book felt very true to Congo and the Scramble for Africa. The crimes of King Leopold’s government towards the Congolese tribes is emphasized throughout the book, as is the misguidedness of Christian missionaries and the arrogance of the utopians who also claim the territory. Shawl has created a fascinating, unsolvable political and social snarl for her characters based on real history.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 6 September 2016.