Everfair, by Nisi Shawl

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

The cover to this novel screams steampunk. The image, the articulated mechanical hand, the human hand, the globe: if you go into Nisi Shawl’s debut not expecting steampunk, you are just not paying attention. And yet it’s quite unexpected steampunk. It’s steampunk that has thought about where rubber comes from, who builds the steam-powered devices, who has access to them and who doesn’t. Who makes things work, who runs things, the dissatisfactions that arise when the two are not the same. This is steampunk with not just a thorough understanding of colonialism but a deep desire to engage with that colonialism.

Its African setting is perfect for that. If you’ve read things about Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries–about World War I in Africa, for example–you’ll be able to see the places where Shawl’s worldbuilding research really shines. The vast variability of Shawl’s characters’ backgrounds and beliefs is completely natural. It would–should–be utterly unremarkable–but instead, it’s ground-breaking. This book is fiercely tender with its history, unflinching and understanding with its characters’ contexts. The parts of the premise that are not literally true are emotionally true–of course utopianists of the late 19th century would behave exactly like that, look at how they did elsewhere and how fascinating to watch it play out in fiction in a different setting.

Does that mean it’s written like a treatise? Nope. It’s written like a thriller novel: short chapters, lots of action, lots of POV switching to cover the most perspective. With a plot that covers thirty years and people from four different continents, it takes a breakneck pace to get through everything that happens. There is no time to stop and lecture. Everything has to be folded into actual story or there will not be enough room for all the story there is here.

Everfair has all sorts of tags you can put on it that will sound like other things, but it is fundamentally not a heck of a lot like the other things with those tags. Steampunk, fantasy, sure, yes, yes it is. But even more its own thing on its own terms.

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