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Everfair by Nisi Shawl

everfairEverfair is a story that spans decades and continents. It tells the history of a country that never was, one where “Fabian Socialists from Great Britian 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.” (source) It lies across blurred genre lines, at the meeting point of steampunk, historical fantasy, and alternate history.

Everfair is told through a multitude of voices, from King Mwende to Lisette Toutournier, Reverend Thomas Jefferson Wilson to Martha Hunter. It is in a sense the story of an idea, a different kind of grand experiment, more than one person or their personal experience. At first this was disorienting for me–I’m very much a character-based reader. But I realized that in fact that this is the point: that Everfair the country is herself the main character, and that the patchwork of people who make up her history are telling her story, rather than their own. So, the main emotional arc is not exactly that of Lisette, or of Daisy, or any of the others. It is of their collective experiences, their various viewpoints, coming from different backgrounds, races, beliefs, and genders.

This approach also lets Shawl resist flattening any one character into a type. Each of the sympathetic characters shows flaws as well as greatness; each of the less sympathetic characters shows greatness as well as flaws. Although the characters are in some ways secondary to the history of what they made, they are not comforting. They also challenge the reader and the reader’s assumptions. We see Daisy’s limits when she cannot look beyond her own whiteness. We also see Martha’s real care and worry for George later in the story. Neither the country nor the characters are held to an impossible perfection; it is through the contradictions and flaws that both become real.

After finishing the book, I kept thinking about the image of prosthetics that appears throughout the book. It’s one of the most steampunk-y elements: the beautiful, deadly mechanical hands that are made for the survivors of King Leopold’s regime whose hands were cut off. It’s an image that seems to underscore the heart of the book: that the history and trauma that have passed cannot be undone, and yet that the story does not have to end there. That another story, with dirigibles and steam-powered hands, with heartache and work and courage is also possible.

In short, I found Everfair to be a reimaging of the past that thinks deeply about implications and patterns. It takes people as they are, and shows the weight and burden of leadership. It is too clear-sighted to truly be a utopia, but it is also hopeful. The ending, full of possibilities, asks us to take up the task of reimagining the world–by both acknowledging the real traumas and looking for the rest of the story.

Other reviews: Amal El-Mohtar at NPR; Jenny at Reading the End; Jaymee Goh at Strange Horizons

 

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Cybils round up: Carson and Lee + bonus Hamilton moment

walk on earth a strangerWalk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson: Set in 1849, this historical fantasy follows Lee, a young girl whose parents are murdered. She can sense gold nearby, so when her uncle shows up to claim her and her property, she disguises herself as a boy and sets out on the trail to the California Gold Rush. The focus here is very much on Lee, but there’s a wider cast of characters in the people she encounters and travels with. This one was exciting, but I personally felt that it was a little short on substance somehow; the action felt almost episodic. But I liked the friendship between Lee and Jefferson, and the way the wagon train functions as a small community. (I was really interested in the way Mrs. Joyner was written as well.)

this monstrous thingThis Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee: This is also historical fantasy, set in 1818 Geneva. It’s a steampunk alternate history of the writing of Frankenstein. I wondered how well this might work for readers who either haven’t read Frankenstein or who don’t know that Mary Shelley was born Mary Godwin (although it’s eventually spelled out for us). But I liked the way Lee translated the concerns of early 19th century Europe into this society anxious about clockwork men (created in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars), about the rise of technology and the concern with what is natural vs. monstrous. The uprising aspect didn’t work quite as well for me, but I did appreciate that it was an attempt to draw on actual historical events. Alisdair is a mostly sympathetic main character, although I liked him best when he was interacting with Clemence. All in all, this is a pretty solid and interesting look at Frankenstein and some of its concerns.

Also, I had a Hamilton moment, because it turns out that Aaron Burr (sir) was close friends with the Godwin-Wollstonecraft household and knew Mary Shelley fairly well when she was young. He even had a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft copied and sent to his daughter Theodosia! (So now I want that AU fanfic where Theodosia and Philip Hamilton both live and fall in love and hang out with the Shelleys and Lord Byron because tell me THAT wouldn’t have ended in at least one duel and maybe a continental war.)

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bookish posts reviews

Cybils round up: Rowell, Swendson, Brockenbrough

  carry onCarry On by Rainbow Rowell: I’ve been simultaneously intrigued and concerned by Carry On ever since its publication was announced. How on earth was this going to work? Was Rowell going to write as Gemma T. Leslie? Would it just be a weak Harry Potter readalike? As it turns out, it worked for me! For one thing, it’s Simon’s final year, ie the story we don’t get any glimpse of in Fangirl. It’s also doing some interesting things with the Chosen One trope, and with Simon’s relationships and friendships–I particularly liked that we get pov sections from Agatha and Penelope, and that they’re allowed to be their own characters with their own arc. Is the plot predictable? Maybe; I certainly saw some aspects coming from several miles away. But at the same time, I felt that we were meant to see them coming, that this is a book very aware of the traditions and tropes it’s engaging with. To the extent that I have reservations, it’s that I’m not quite sure what the subtext is saying, or trying to say, with the conflict between the established families and the Mage. Nonetheless, I found this both enjoyable and effective.

rebel mechanicsRebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson: Alternate history, where the British still rule the American colonies in 1888. The main character is Verity Newton, a young governess who finds a job working for one of the families of Magisters who control magic and its use. But the family and Verity herself have secrets. This is one of those books that I found slightly frustrating, because I liked it, but I wanted to love it. It’s a fairly quick and light read, which is really my issue: I felt like it was teetering on the verge of saying something really thoughtful and interesting about colonialism and rebellion and identity, but never quite managed any of those. On the other hand, it’s perhaps not fair to want a book to be something that it’s simply not; certainly if you’re looking for a coherent and fun steampunk adventure, this is a good one!

game of love and deathThe Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough: This is a very good book for a different reader than I am. If you love books that engage with big ideas and have a sense of sweeping, epic scope, this is probably for you. If you like a heightened style of prose, this is a very well-done example. For me, a reader who is very invested in characters and prefers a quieter prose style, it was very difficult to feel connected with the story. Henry and Flora never quite convinced me that they were real people, as opposed to Love and Death’s pawns, and even their ostensible interests (music and flying) felt somewhat tacked on as opposed to organic. It was nice to see an interracial couple in historical fantasy, and the world was generally at least somewhat diverse. But I felt that the ending was too tidy, and I have questions about the arc of one of the characters. Still, as I said, this was fundamentally a book I appreciated while recognizing that it was also one I was probably never going to personally love.

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January 2015 round-up

Books I’ve already talked about
Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks
Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire
True Pretenses by Rose Lerner
The Ivory Trilogy by Doris Egan
The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shahib Nye
Maid of Deception by Jennifer McGowan
Marching for Freedom by Elizabeth Partridge
Towards Zero, Cat Among the Pigeons, and The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie
The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein
Picture Book Monday
Song for the Basilisk by Patricia McKillip
Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier
House of Shadows by Rachel Neuemeier

Other books
The Badger Knight by Kathryn Erskine: Historical fiction. This is a just fine book, and I appreciated that it’s about a character with albinism. But it reads very dryly and I think it suffered from a tendency to overexplanation. I think Erskine has clearly done a lot of research into the era, and yet it never quite came alive for me in the way other books have.

A Corruptible Crown by Gillian Bradshaw: Historical fiction. The sequel to London in Chains. I liked it, because it’s Bradshaw and I like Lucy. But for me, neither book has quite the appeal of her books that are set in antiquity. It probably doesn’t help that I have a intense dislike for Cromwell and the Puritans. But of course, she shows the complexities of the time quite well, as usual.

The One That I Want by Jennifer Echols: I really enjoy Echols, especially when I want something that’s smart, well written, and comforting. This one isn’t a particular favorite of mine, but it was on the shelf and I hadn’t re-read it much.

Once Upon a Rose by Laura Florand: Review coming shortly!

My True Love Gave to Me edited by Stephanie Perkins: A very mixed bag; a few I enjoyed, but overall not one I personally felt super enthusiastic about. I often feel ambivalent about anthologies, especially those featuring many different authors. I did, however, like Kelly Link’s Tam Lin story, which was the main reason I read it.

Ticker by Lisa Mantchev: I was hoping I would like this one, because I did enjoy Mantchev’s earlier books. But the curse of steampunk did me in! I should know better at this point. I was really bothered by the ahistoricalness of it, and the way the main character interacted with her physical issues did not make much sense to me.

Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin: I was not a huge fan of this one, unfortunately. It’s a retelling of HC Andersen’s “The Emperor and the Nightingale”, but the way in which it was a retelling didn’t work for me. However, I think my biggest issue is that I’m not sure it works for the target audience. I’m all for complex, difficult books for kids, but I don’t think this one is interesting enough.

Neighborhood Sharks by Katherine Roy: Gorgeous informational book about sharks in the San Francisco bay area. There’s a wealth of facts, and beautiful illustrations that honestly work far better than any photos could. (I have recently become a huge fan of illustrated informational books!) This one got a Sibert Honor on Monday, and it’s well deserved.

Protector
by CJ Cherryh: One of my favorites of the recent Foreigner books (I feel like I keep saying that, but it keeps being true!). Cherryh really shows off her ability to weave different strands together: the remnants of the Shadow Guild, the ongoing questions about Tatiseigi and Damiri’s manchi, Cajeiri’s growing up. It felt a bit like everything kicked into a new gear in this one.

Other posts
Historical Fantasies: 1920s on
Patricia McKillip readalikes
Top Ten Tuesday: Childhood Favorites
Top Ten Tuesday: 2015 debuts
Links from January 5th
Links from January 19th
Christmas cooking and baking
My 2015 reading goals
My current planning method
Favorite Author: Elizabeth Marie Pope

TV & movies
It was a pretty quiet month. I watched a lot of Poirot and rewatched several favorites: Decoy Bride, Sabrina (the 90s version), and Amelie.