I was realllly looking forward to this book. I mean, come on. An alternate history exploring what it would have been like if the Congo Free State (shudder) never existed due to the invention of steampunk-like technologies. Instead, and I’m gonna steal from the blurb here,
“Fabian Socialists from Great Britain join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s ‘owner,’ King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.”
That just fires my imagination right up there. A story that has the potential to imagine a better world for thousands, perhaps millions of people? To imagine correcting one of the worst human atrocities in history? There is SO MUCH possibility built into that premise. And on top of that, Shawl’s story is populated right from the start with voices of people who have historically been silenced. Not only the Congolese people, but women and other POC, as well as LGBTQ+ people. (Guys, um spoilers, but there’s a lesbian love triangle in this book, and how often have you seen that in a fantasy book?)
I was almost immediately disengaged from this book. Shawl’s prose is fine. Sort of beautiful, even. But it also felt emotionally empty, largely because of the way she chose to structure her narrative. This is not an immersive story set in a fantastical or historically detailed period. It’s a collage of timehopping events spread so far out both over time and emotion that it’s almost impossible to actually care about what’s going on. Just as you get your bearings in a scene/setting, she ends it and fast-forwards you five years. I also thought the worldbuilding was very weak. The supposed technology that made this alternate history possible was barely there. In fact, I almost missed it. There was no focus on how it changed the world. There was no focus on how Everfair came to be. There was no focus on the details of how this new state effected people’s lives. In other words, none of the stuff that made me so intrigued in the premise. It was almost detached, a historical view of a fantasy history, told in fragments. I had to force myself to finish it.
So yeah, just really disappointed in this one. I’d be curious to see if it worked better for others.