Everfair is told from a slew of different viewpoints – American, French, Macauian, and, of course, Central African. The characters are relatively distinct, and have very different viewpoints. What they are not, unfortunately, is interesting. While we do learn about their histories and desires, I found very little reason to care what happened to them. In part, that’s because Shawl constantly skips from place to place, frequently eliding key events, and leaving us to pick up the pieces. As a technique, it can be effective, but in this book, with so many characters and places and happenings, I found it more confusing than subtle. It’s complicated by the fact that there’s a fair amount of trading of romantic partners, and what might be notable characteristics – e.g., prosthetic clockwork hands – are shared by many key figures. The result was less a fine weave of different threads than a tangle of raw cotton tangled in awkward knots. I found the politics of it all even less interesting, and it’s a book that’s very much about personal politics.
The world is a definite alternate – not only is the history different, but the technology leans toward steampunk, and at least some magic is real. Because I’ve spent a fair amount of time in that part of the world (and in Liberia, the closest thematic cognate), I’d hoped the geography would at least draw my attention. But while names are only slightly altered (e.g. to our historical versions), the landscape is only vaguely drawn in, and it’s difficult to separate one locale from another.
I found the result distinctly unsatisfying. Shawl’s prose style is nice, but the overall book was both too dry and too jumbled to hold my interest.