This review was first published by Booklist in August, 2016.
Shawl’s first novel offers a steampunk-influenced alternate history of the Belgian Congo from 1889 to 1919. It envisions what would have happened if Fabian Socialists from Europe and African American missionaries had purchased land in the Congo from King Leopold and established a free state made up of native Africans, freed slaves, European settlers, and even Chinese laborers. Told from the perspectives of several different characters, it touches on themes of colonialism, sovereignty, religion, prejudice, sexuality, and identity. It is structured episodically, with each chapter offering a snapshot from the lives of the characters and the history of Everfair; some chapters could almost stand on their own as short stories. Taken together, these snapshots weave an engrossing tapestry of the history and humanity of what might have been for the Congo. The work is elegant, rendered with masterful craft in simple, compelling language—a tour de force of Shawl’s tremendous ability to create deeply nuanced characters. This is a beautifully told, important entry in the movement for greater diversity in sf.
[Author’s Note: I regret not giving this book a starred review. It deserved one—it was one of the most interesting and compelling SF novels of the year and I think it will take its place as in important work in the history of the genre. Sometimes the true value of a book takes time to realize.]