Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Not a Review: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Not a Review looks at books I got a good way through before giving up on them. I’ll explain why I read so much and why I didn’t finish.  These are - by their nature - going to be predominately negative reviews.  They’ll also contain some amount of spoilers (though I’ll try not to give anything major away without a warning).

I read 221 pages out of 381.

Pros: great setting, shines light on horrific historical abuses

Cons: jumps in time, focus on sexual relationships over politics, limited steampunk

This is a Neo-Victorian alternative history novel focusing on the horrors of Belgium’s colonization of the Congo and what might have happened had the native population had access to air ships and the backing of some Europeans and Americans.

What I liked: the setting. This is a time and place I know nothing about and this book encouraged me to research some of what actually happened. And it is horrifying. The abuses in the book - lost limbs, families used as ransom to make the natives into rubber harvesting slaves. The book shows native religion and healing practices in a positive light, which was wonderful. It also showed how people of different races could band together to fight injustice. 

I also liked the unflinching look at racism from many sides. Even people who join the utopic society of Everfair find themselves unhappy with mixed marriages. Lisette’s black grandfather spoils her otherwise white European ancestry, causing problems for her when it’s revealed. These are sad reminders of reality, but reality all the same. And if we can’t look at it in fiction, we can’t see it in ourselves, and can’t help face it and deal with it in our daily lives.

The steampunk additions - aircanoes and metallic prosthetics - were cool but used very sparingly. They only enter the book 100 pages in, and while they are central to the book’s purpose (used in the war against Belgium in the Congo) they’re used more as window dressing, showing up for a paragraph here, a chapter there, but not feeling as important as they undoubtedly are.

The book jumps ahead in time by months and years making it hard to get to know more than the basics about the different characters. And while I didn’t have trouble remembering who anyone was, I also didn’t really care about anyone. The chapters are so short that you don’t get to learn much more about people than who they want to sleep with and why that’s bad (usually because of racist or age related reasons). Had there been more development of the different characters outside their romances, I might have cared more about those romances. As it was, I barely knew who anyone was and so didn’t really feel invested in their lives. There were also times when circumstances changed so drastically it was hard to understand how someone went from one place to another (like Wilson’s training in one of the native religions).

I was surprised by how little politics were in the book. The last chapter I read dealt with what I can only believe was an important political choice: should Everfair join with the German side or the French side of the coming conflict, but the reasoning behind the difference was lost on me. It sounded like both sides wanted the same things from Everfair, but it’s clear that Daisy’s on one side and Mattis is on the other, but I have no idea which side I should be on because I don’t understand the difference between them or what the ultimate stakes are for Everfair. The chapter dealt more with Lisette’s love life and a potential scandal (one that was obviously coming according to Lisette’s asides) than with the politics involved. 

Ultimately I was hoping for the book to go more into the politics of Everfair and the Congo and for there to be more steampunk gadgetry in the book. What I got was a fascinating primer on the problems in the Congo caused by Belgium in the late 1800s and early 1900s and a lot of romantic pairings I didn’t care much about.  

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