Lite Reads Review: ‘The Effluent Engine’ by N.K. Jemisin

Week twenty-six of Lite Reads comes to a close, as we finish with our short story selection The Effluent Engine by N.K. Jemisin. Throughout the week, there have been questions as food for thought on social media as people had the chance to read it and think about it. Before I announce the next Lite Reads selection (February 17), I will be sharing my own thoughts here. Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t finished reading the story yet.

The Effluent Engine tells the story of Jessaline Dumonde, a Haitian spy, as she seeks help with a new invention in New Orleans in order to prevent France from recapturing Haiti in the decades following the Haitian Revolution. Jessaline meets Eugenie Rillieux, the sister of a wealthy Creole scientist, who happens to be a scientist and inventor in her own right. Jessaline enlists Eugenie in helping her create an engine that can run off the gases contained within the waste created by the rum distillation process. Their mission quickly becomes more dangerous than expected as a racist organisation attempts to take them out and steal their plans for themselves. And through all of this science and drama, the two women find love with one another.

N.K. Jemisin is one of those writers who has several books that top my to-read list, but I have somehow managed to not yet read prior to this. I’m aware that The Effluent Engine isn’t necessarily in the style she is best known for, but I have no regrets about making it my first read. Jemisin is a talented writer, and this story just flew by for me as I read it. There are a lot of complexities in the genre-blending taking place here, and Jemisin pulls it all together brilliantly.

I was really fascinated with the types of history Jemisin was able to include in The Effluent Engine. I feel like we don’t see nearly enough stories about the Haitian Revolution, and even fewer stories set in the years following the revolution. I thought it was interesting that Jessaline was the illegitimate daughter of Toussaint L’Ouverture, a real historical figure during the revolution. I also thought it was interesting how Jemisin was able to incorporate the views of the slaveholding USA on Haiti, a country founded by a slave revolution. The entire plot of the story is set in New Orleans, which Jemisin is able to use as a goldmine for history in its own right. Jemisin really captures the attitudes of the day in her depictions of different races and classes. I think it’s especially exciting to see a writer who is unafraid to use fantasy and science-fiction to explore areas of history that are often left untouched, especially considering the whole new audience that history could be shared with as a result.

I personally read far more traditional historical fiction than I do steampunk or alternate history, but it isn’t necessarily out of preference. I do love stories that fully immerse themselves in the accurate details of the day and make history feel alive, it is precisely that kind of story that made me fall in love with history as a child. That said, I think there is something really special about reading stories that still capture those types of facts and details while allowing themselves to get carried away with engineering and chemistry and advanced travel. I still love this type of story, and I think Jemisin has really captured what is so great about this type of story. I also can’t help but imagine the people who might be falling in love with history because of stories that use purely fictional elements like this one does.

I am generally a fan of romance plots (whether in a genre romance, love story, or subplot to another genre or category), and I definitely enjoy them regardless of the orientation of the relationship. So steampunk lesbian romance that hinges on the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution is definitely to my taste. I thought Jessaline and Eugenie made a really cute couple, and it was hard to do anything but root for them from the first moment they meet. I also appreciated that while the characters do express some level of concern for the views of others at the time, their love story never feels shameful, secretive, or overly focused on the need to come out. Obviously, it is only a short story and there is more to the plot than only the love story, but it can still feel so refreshing to read lesbian romance that has more to do with their admiration, attraction, and love for one another than it does with the way their relationship impacts people who are not them. I appreciated the way the romance was a key ingredient to the story in a way that meant the romance relied on the rest of the plot, but the rest of the plot relied upon the romance in return.

Overall, The Effluent Engine was a genuine delight to read, filled with history, steampunk science, love, intrigue, and adventure. I think this type of story makes for the kind of speculative fiction that is so vital to share during Black History Month because it so perfectly captures past, present, and future all at once, as well as capturing Black achievement and love more than it does pain or subjugation. I highly recommend this one, and I will definitely make 2019 the year I explore more of Jemisin’s work.

I hope everyone who participated by reading the story and following along on social media enjoyed the story. If you have more thoughts to add, please feel free to comment on this post, or anywhere on The Feminist Bibliothecary’s social media. With another story chosen with Black History Month in mind, week twenty-seven begins tomorrow, February 17, with a brand new short story selection!

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