Review: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

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Everfair is yet another book I could call brilliant but flawed.

The settlers of Everfair had come here naïvely at best, arrogantly at worst. Due to the orders of the king they had found the country seemingly empty. In the fight against Leopold, their assistance had been most valuable, and they had also brought to the cause the help of Europeans and Americans who would never otherwise have cared for any African’s plight. 

But by their very presence they poisoned what they sought to save. How could they not? Assuming they knew the best about so many things—not even realizing they had made such assumptions—they acted without considering other viewpoints and remained in ignorance in spite of the broadest hints.

I picked it up despite the mixed ratings because the concept seemed incredibly fascinating: what if the Belgian king Leopold II instead of exploiting Kongo and causing the deaths of a large part of its population sold a part of it to the socialist Fabian society and Christian missionaries who would then try to establish an utopia for the native population and escaped slaves? What if they had steam technology? What would happen when WWI came? How would queer and interracial relationships fare at that time, even in such a society?

And that part is where it shines the most. Nuanced and intricate, it goes deep into the implications of what that would mean, of how it would work, of the trouble they would face. Despite the intention of making an equal society, racism, sexism, and all the prejudices of that time still exist and play a role. The characters don’t always make perfect choices, they don’t always agree with each other, and their actions have long-lasting consequences. Several characters have unconventional relationships – polyamorous, lesbian, with large age differences, interracial. Some also get steampunk mechanical arms after they lost them due to mistreatment under their previous colonial overlords or during battle, though this is more of a background detail and mostly unexplored.

The prose is beautiful as well.

If love lived in Daisy’s heart, she could let its sense rise to her brain and permeate it like heavily scented smoke. She need only open her nose and inhale. She need only suppress her fear of choking on hard-to-swallow knowledge.

However, while it’s interesting on an intellectual level, as an elaborate and well-executed thought experiment, it fails as a story. For a shortish book, the number of POVs (10 if not more) and the amount of time it covers (30 years) is staggering. The chapters are short vignettes and there are often large jumps between them – granted, not of the jarring or confusing kind, but it also means that a lot of development happens offscreen. There was no real attachment to the characters or the plot, instead it felt almost clinical and lacking in passion. Perhaps it would have worked better had it been longer or more limited in terms of POV, perhaps not. Regardless, I’m looking forward to more books from the author.

Enjoyment: 2.5/5
Execution: 3/5

Recommended to: concept-focused readers, prose fans, those looking for unique fantasy books
Not recommended to: character-focused readers

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