Nisi Shawl’s Everfair is an alternate history, all right, and it’s got the dirigibles to prove it. But it’s not another WW2 or American Civil War alt-history; it’s diverging from Leopold II’s atrocities in the Congo in the late 19th/early 20th century, with the founding of the nation of Everfair.
As an alternate history, this one is heavy on the “history.” Its characters are the kind of people that history is made out of: complicated, flawed as hell, brilliant at times, occasionally very stupid, and driven by their own idiosyncratic interests that are often pulling them in different directions even from their friends and allies. This may not be the history of our world, but it feels like the history of some world.
This is actually maybe the one weakness of the book, too: It does span decades, and it doesn’t do it in a few big chunks, it does it chapter by chapter. Every time you have a chapter break, you might be skipping ahead by hours, weeks, or years. This can be disconcerting if you’re not paying attention; at first I was ignoring the dateline, as fantasy novels have trained me to find them worthless, and was getting very confused.
But even once you’ve realized what’s going on, it can still cut against narrative momentum and sap the tension out of scenes, as you’ll be getting up to a big crisis point, and then you cut to a year and a half later and a whole new set of characters, who mention in passing that oh yeah, that happened. (The positive side of this, though, is that it doesn’t wallow in things that we already know—lightly skipping through World War I, for instance, cuts out a lot of slog.)
Recommended for anyone looking for Victorian steampunk alt-history that doesn’t skip blithely over the awfulness of Victorian normpunk regular history.