Nisi Shawl has created an exciting new perspective on the steampunk genre by choosing a less familiar corner of the Victorian British Empire as her setting. In her epic alternate history, the Congo Free State becomes the site of a Utopian society, Everfair, established by African-American missionaries, refugees from Leopold II’s genocidal exploitation of the Congolese, and members of the real-life Fabian Society (progenitor of England’s Socialist movement and Labour Party). A sweeping cast of characters (an absolutely necessary guide is included) presents a cross-section of races, ethnicities, nations, and genders, who become allies, families, and adversaries in the struggle to forge a democratic nation out of a beautiful landscape beset by colonialism’s toxic legacy.
Shawl brilliantly reimagines the historical setting by introducing supernatural and technological elements such as nuclear-powered airships, antibiotics, and spirit traveling, all of which give the Everfairians an advantage in resisting their colonial oppressors from the 1880s through World War I. This allows Shawl to foresee a 20th century in which the innovation, spirituality, diversity, and passion of a variety of African cultures change the course of world history.
It’s an incredibly ambitious project, but Shawl tells it from the viewpoints of men and women intimately connected both to their ideals and to each other – most notably the polyamorous Albin clan headed by “the Poet,” Daisy; her lover, mixed-race inventor/author/spy Lisette Toutournier; ambitious Congolese king Mwenda and his visionary wife, Josina; Thomas Jefferson Wilson, a conflicted African-American missionary turned spirit-walking revolutionary; and genius engineer Ho Lin-Huang.
The narrative shifts rapidly from character to character and year to year, which may overwhelm some readers. But even within its grand scale, Shawl creates intimate moments of stunning natural beauty, emotional poignancy, and philosophical insight. This is both an important expansion of the overwhelmingly European steampunk genre, and a marvelous reading experience in its own right.