Everfair – Nisi Shawl

I’ve written before about the challenges and shortcomings of steampunk as a genre. It was why I was so excited to receive a review copy of Nisi Shawl’s Everfair from Tor. It’s the book about colonialism I have been waiting a long time to read.  
Firmly rooted in history, Shawl imagines an alternate history for the Congo Free State in the late 19th century. The real history is bloody and shameful. As Shawl acknowledges in the historical note that opens Everfair, under King Leopold II of Belgium, around half of the population disappeared between 1895 and 1908. Much of the motive for this was the production of cheap rubber under highly exploitative conditions. And as any industrial historian will tell you, rubber was essential for much of the Industrial Revolution, making colonialism and the exploitation of natural resources elsewhere in the world a central element of Western industrial progress. This is exemplified by Lisette’s love of her rubber-tyred bicycle and the freedom it represents in the opening of the novel. Shawl imagines an alternate path for the Congo Free State. A group of idealistic Europeans and freed American slaves work with the indigenous people to defeat King Leopold’s troops and found a progressive state. Ingenuity combined with local raw materials drive a steampunk society that quickly prospers. The novel follows the country’s history as it throws off the yoke of Belgian colonialism and navigates WWI. 
What’s so refreshing about Everfair is to see racism and the power dynamics of colonialism set out front and centre. At their best, the Western settlers are motivated by idealism and a genuine desire to create a better place. But they are also racist, entitled, privileged and crashingly tone deaf to how they come across. Many of the central conflicts in the novel stem from the interplay between those attitudes and those of the indigenous population. For some, it is the first time they’ve encountered racism: the mixed race Lisette Toutournier is white-passing in Europe, but on moving to Africa is forced to engage with her heritage, particularly the unthinking racism of her lover Daisy Albin.  
But the real joy of Everfair is its cast of characters. There’s the intelligent and elegant Queen Josina, the peace-maker and diplomat, wife to the canny King Mwenda. Tink, the visionary engineer from Macao who is at the heart of so much of the country’s development, but mourns his lost love Lily all his life. Fwendi: actress, spy and lover of an English playwright. Martha Hunter, the puritanical widowed missionary who seeks to bring Christianity to Africa, and takes such unalloyed joy in her unexpected second marriage.All of them bring a tremendous richness to a fantastic book.  
Goodreads rating: 4*

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