This book has a fascinating premise: what if African-American missionaries, English socialists, and Congolese leaders worked together to prevent one of history's great atrocities, the murder of some 10 million people by Belgian colonialists in the Congo at the turn of the 20th century, and formed a utopian steampunk country? It also has a unusual structure; Shawl tells her story in many short chapters from the POV of 10 different characters with very different backgrounds.
When it works (during the early years of Everfair and the lead-up to World War I), it feels less like a novel than a mosaic--many small pieces coming together to form a larger picture. At other times the fractured narrative distances the reader from the story; it would have worked better with an omniscient narrator who could have shown many character's perspectives with more cohesion.
But it remains thought-provoking alternative history. Shawl explores how imperfect people work together for a common cause, and where their alliances break down. The Christian missionaries and European polyamorists don't always get along; the Congolese never forget that their allies are also invaders; most of the European and American characters never entirely escape their internalized racism, though many (like Lisette, a Frenchwoman who comes to a very different understanding of her own mixed heritage) evolve. Multiracial and culturally hybrid characters take leading roles, while interracial romances blossom and face challenges. Shawl devises some very clever combinations of Central African culture with steampunk technology.
The best-developed story is the epic and troubled love affair between two bisexual women, who are drawn together even as racism, circumstance, and different attitudes toward polyamory drive them apart. Other plot lines didn't work as well for me, but the book is well-worth reading and food for thought.
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