Author: Nisi Shawl
Published: September 6, 2016
Publisher: Tor Books
Nisi Shawl opens her debut novel, Everfair, with the best part of her talent on display: Shawl has an unmatched ability to describe the way people do things in a way that truly pulls the audience in and demonstrates who her characters really are. The novel starts with this:
“Lisette Toutournier sighed. She breathed in again, out in, the marvelous ari smelling of crushed stems, green blood bruised and roused by her progress along this narrow forest path. Her progress, and that of her new mechanical friend (19).”
I’d be hard-pressed to stop reading. Her sentences are both beautiful and informative while moving at a moderate pace that leaves me wanting to learn more about the worlds she spins.
Everfair’s other strength, is the hope invested in every page. Shawl believes in her characters, and they in turn, honestly believe in themselves and the country that they’re building. Everfair tells the history of a fictional African country that opposed King Leopold II’s genocide in Congo. Her Everfair, is a country made of immigrants that the country’s leaders, including the aforementioned Lisette Toutournier, teach to work together for the common good of all. Despite the book’s optimism, race and tribal birth do make a difference in the course of this country’s history, but this makes the book feel all the more real and thoughtful on its examinations of cultural debt, assimilation, and what is goodwill?
Rather than having a set main character, Everfair as a country serves to function as the book’s focus. I’ve never read a book that does that before, although as I understand it James Michener’s books work similarly. It’s an ambitious conceit, but one I fear ultimately holds the book back from its full potential. Before the Author’s Note, the book has a two-page long list of characters and a map. The rotating point of view focuses on the country’s Mote – in Shawl’s government a group of advisors to the king and queen. It’s a large shifting groups, and many of the characters in the two-page list get chapters from a close, third-person point of view. In terms of inclusivity, this is a good because different characters from different backgrounds are given voices with weight. In terms of a coherent narrative, it causes problems. The chapters have to be short to cover the thirty year span of the narrative and include all of these characters. Keeping track of who the point of view character is, what they’re doing, and how they’re impacting the country’s history can be extremely difficult at times. The short chapters are hard to settle into and enjoy because they’re over so quickly.
There’s also months long jumps between almost every chapter. “Mombasa, Kenya, September 1915” ends shortly after Fwendi discovers that she and all of the other principal characters in the hotel they are staying at are going to be arrested in the morning. The chapter ends on a cliffhanger, and had me genuinely excited to see how they were going to escape. But the next chapter starts in October, leaving however the characters got away unknown. Frequently the fun parts of genre writing are relegated to those gaps between chapters. As a decision that helps the book focus on the country rather than the people, it’s a good choice. As a decision for entertaining readers, it’s not.
Everfair isn’t written to entertain though. Shawl addresses this while her characters are debating whether or not Everfair should enter into World War I when George Hunter says, ““That was why there was no more beauty in the world. War had killed it” (256). He seems to be voicing Shawl’s commentary that war isn’t fun, but destructive, a message that feels extremely more relevant now than when the book was released in September.
In many ways, Shawl’s first novel accomplishes what it set out to do. It provides an alternative history of how a genocide could’ve been stopped and by extension how readers can and should attempt to stop future genocides. It exudes hope in a time of hopelessness. It features lesbian, polyamorous, and interracial relationships as well as people of color without exoticising or othering them. It certainly has its issues – mostly stemming from the short chapter structure in a narrative with a massive scope – but Everfair sets out to do important work and for the most part, it succeeds in doing it.