There's a lot to like about Everfair, and that's where I want to start. Even the very brief elevator pitch was enough for me to persistently petition my book rep to send me a copy: an alt-history steampunk book set in not-Europe. As a person who reads a lot of this stuff, what a breath of fresh air from the norm: a sea of white people in top hats with some gears attached. And that cover!
The book delivers on a lot, particularly the alt-history part. It could almost be a history book of the founding of this fictional country of Everfair, following each of its founders, both men and women, white and black, African and foreign, through their lives. I actually ended up having to read up on King Leopold II's exploitation of the Congo because it had been such a footnote in my history books, and everything is based around the what-if of Everfair changing that particular point of history. It's obviously something that was thought about extensively. Like true history, it remains complicated, and certainly it is not an event "fixed" by the existence of Everfair, but the change is important and... overall positive, which isn't often the case in alt-history.
The complications of Everfair post-Leopold, however, is what really stood out to me. I actually expected the book to end at Leopold's surrender, but it continues onto World War I, and with Leopold gone, creates conflicts within Everfair itself. Even sheer fact of its existence is a bit of a difficult topic, as it was bought from Leopold, who stole the land. Even if Everfair helped, significantly, it remains as an emblem of colonization, which Daisy is a perfect poster child of. A co-existing of haughty ideals combined with ignorant privilege, which she grows through, as does everyone. The book does a fantastic job of showing slow, insidious change, not placing it on merely specific events, but the natural growth and back and forth of interactions with people.
I did really like both of the main-ish characters: Daisy and Lisette, Lisette much more so. Daisy turned herself around to me at the end, but even so, is a finely written character for the reasons above. In Daisy's mind she is so fair and equal; in the view of the others, particularly those of whose country in which she resides and claims as her own, she is as presumptive and invasive as Martha, enforcing colonialism not through brutality or war, but through things like claiming the founder of their country to be the white man who bought the stolen property, not the centuries-old kings who lived there. This privilege, it is so
well done. And so is Lisette's exhaustion of it.
Lisette was admittedly the character I was always hoping I'd get next, and it is nice that so much of the book focuses on her, because she is a wonderfully rounded character. The exuberance from when we meet her fades as we go through the book, but it is nice to watch her find her identity through her failures, strengths, and bitterness. By the end of the book she has become
a steadfast character, whereas Daisy starts and ends (to her detriment) as one, Lisette learns where to draw the lines with help from Josina.
So Daisy and Lisette stand out, but it is worth mentioning that all of the characters in the book are interesting in their own ways, barring one or two side characters not worth mentioning. It's always apparently that they have depth to them, even before we get to walk in their shoes for a bit. That said, I was feeling like Tink got cut out a little, even considering his tragedy. Or rather, especially considering his tragedy!
And here we get to my disappointments in the book.
For one thing, I didn't feel very steampunk-y, which wouldn't necessarily have been a bad thing if it didn't attempt to sprinkle it throughout. Where the history and the characters shine with personality and layers of thought, the technology of the world is somewhat unhappily flat and 2-dimensional and doesn't feel like it actually impacts the story that much. If it wasn't steampunk, would much of the book even be changed? I wouldn't say so. The biggest thing is the Littlest Heater, and it's described so vaguely that it could crop up in just about any kind of novel. The mechanical hands I feel similarly about, and they really have no bearing on the plot at all, other than to attempt to give the book an immediate steampunk connection.
And so as the face and basis of this other-reality technology, Tink is given a miserable amount of facetime in the book, and is certainly not nearly as developed as Daisy and Lisette, or even Martha and Thomas. It furthers the feeling that the technology is an afterthought in the book - and it brings it down in general, whereas its absence would have bolstered it, I feel. It doesn't need
it to enrich the history-in-action. This may seem pet-peeve-y, as I'm a techie person who likes reading techie things, but I stand by it in the sense that steampunk worlds are defined hugely by that technology, so if that technology isn't well defined, it feels pretty disappointing, especially when I feel that its lack of existence wouldn't have had a bearing on the alt-ness of the history.
Speaking of which, I discussed a little earlier that the book is a bit like the beginning history of this country - I don't know that I wouldn't have wanted this book to have been written like
a historical non-fiction. I say this because I have to admit that the book was something of a slog for me. There were huge sections I remember blanking on and being forced to reread. As much as I loved so much in
the book, the writing simply didn't pull me from one sentence to the next. Not to mention I wish that the chapters felt a little more distinctive for each character. Because the book is a mish-mash of so many radically different viewpoints, it feels weird that everyone's inner monologue seems to be written all similarly.
It's a book that I'd recommend, though. Overall, the pros more than outweigh the cons, even if I feel like the quick premise would have been better suited for a different book.