Epic Post-Victoriana Afro-Steampunk
That’s right—this book is all those titles. And more. And less. A steampunk take—no, a steampunk revolution against—the brutal and overlooked colonization of sub-Saharan Africa, and the stuffy European ideals that still haunt racial and sexual politics today. Sounds awesome, right? A lot of things about Nisi Shawl’s post-Victoriana epic are awesome—the multicultural cast of Chinese and European immigrants, indigenous Africans, and people born somewhere in between; the clever African inflection she gives to steampunk technologies (like taking the rubber industry driving colonization and making it improve dirigibles); the religious and political factions all struggling to create their own kind of African state—it’s all awesome.
It’s just hard to follow.
That could be because instead of one viewpoint character, or even two or three (see most epics), or five or six (think Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan), we’ve got eleven. They are well-written and unique and fun to read—but even so I struggle to remembered who each one was and what had happened last time we met them.
Add to that some significant time jumps—the book takes place over twenty years, and sometimes a year or more has passed since we last followed a particular character—and they’re in a new place, and a lot politically has happened since then. Technology itself leaps forward—we go from steam tractors to fast dirigibles in the space of a chapter or two, in which the main settlement has also been attacked and had to retreat somewhere else to caves, and we’ve switched character heads…
You get the idea. Really cool stuff is happening, but instead of a single story Everfair feels like six or eight novellas shuffled together. It expects a lot of the reader, and much as I’m ready for mental leaps, for imaginative stretches—that’s part of why we love fantasy—at a certain point the readability gets in the way of the awesome. And bottomline, I found myself less excited to return to Everfair than other books I was reading at the time, despite all the things it has going for it.
So take this for what you will. If you love historical fantasy/steampunk, really diverse casts of characters, or are interested in steampunk imagining some of the wrongs of Leopold’s Congo righted, this book will be worth the work. If that all sounds good, but you’re looking for a book to draw you in rather than having to pull yourself in, it might not be the one.