There are a lot of layers to this story enabled by the nature of the protagonist. A mechanical girl – an emancipated automaton – whose freedom is “allowed” by a man of wealth and power. Her point of view, the mechanical girl’s, allows for a unique, in many ways un-biased, view of a class-based power struggle. At times the writing is noticeably detached from the events that would typically be the focal point of a comparable narrative: the assassination of a figurehead, mass destruction of the city, lives destroyed, and homes burnt to the ground. But this is the nature of the eyes we’re given to look through. It was an interesting and enjoyable way to experience this narrative, and opened up a lot of opportunities for social commentary. The over-arching issues were that of power and freedom, and Sedia wove these in with issues of gender, race, slavery, and technology (as they are woven in reality). As a result, The Alchemy of Stone is overflowing with perceptive and thoughtful quotes. For example:
“Or perhaps you just think someone who doesn’t want to be your slave is aiming to be your master.”
The end of the story is unusual, which I was more surprised by than I should have been considering how unusual the entire narrative is. Either way, it caught me off guard in its abruptness and lack of satisfying closure. I’ll need more distance before settling on what I think of the ending, but I think I liked it. If nothing else, the conclusion is thought-provoking and just the right amount of troubling. The Alchemy of Stone is unlike anything I’ve ever read, and that is always a good thing.
I came away from Everfair with a huge amount of respect for Nisi Shawl as a writer. Everfair is a novel that must have required extremely extensive research and planning, but even more than that, I was impressed with Shawl’s ability to balance viewpoints. No character’s point-of-view was ignored, overlooked, or presented any less seriously than any other, and there were a lot of different viewpoints. Everfair, set mostly in the Congo at the turn of the 20th century, does an incredible job of demonstrating why race relations and gender relations continue to be so hard to navigate, even by those who are trying their very best to be good, and by all accounts are good. It demonstrates how easy it is to, as a white person, male or female, forget the extent of your privilege and hurt or ignore or invalidate people of color. It reminded me how important it is to constantly question the way I treat others, to always be willing to accept I’m wrong, to always be willing to change, and that when it comes to the rights of people of color, the only voices we should trust are theirs.
The novel is split into two parts. The first part is the story of the colonists of Everfair fighting with the indigenous people of the Congo to end King Leopold III’s cruel reign over the Congo. The second part deals with what happens after King Leopold III is defeated. With their common enemy dealt with and WWI taking shape, how do the white colonists and the indigenous population live harmoniously in one country both feel they hold claim to? It’s this second part of Everfair that truly blew me away. Shawl deals with complicated questions of right and wrong and handles them gracefully and insightfully. The novel is also a powerfully feminist one. There are many important and central characters in Everfair, but the main protagonist is a woman who throughout the novel greatly inspired me. She is realistic in her flaws but also realistic in her strengths and that believability is what made her character and her story so powerful to me. Everfair presents a fictional, alternative history, but one that offers a lot to learn from.