Fantasy novel by Paula Volsky. * * * 1/2 (explanation)
King Miltzin VI of Lower Hetz, or "Mad Miltzin", is a thoroughly modern
king. He has a new mistress every week, and expends Lower Hetz's
treasury on ever more elaborate building projects. He pays a certain
magical "Nevenskoi" to delve into the arcane arts in the interest of producing
something interesting, a new diversion for the easily-jaded king.
Nevenskoi has delivered: A sentient form of Fire that which can be controlled by the adept's will.
Ogron, emperor of Grewzland, is busy swallowing up smaller countries
of the world. The atrocities of the Grewzian army are too numerous
to describe here; in short, it seems that Ogron will realize his ambition
of conquering the entire world. His cousin Miltzin couldn't care
less. Rumors of Miltzin's new weapon are all over the place (Leaks by Nevenskoi helped), but offers from foreign countries to buy the secret are too crass
to be dignified with a response. Instead, Miltzin comes up with a
new entertainment, the Grand Ellipse, a race around the world. The
prize is a Lower Hetzian peerage and a valuable estate to go with it.
Reading newspaper accounts of the racers' progress should keep Miltzin
entertained for several weeks.
Luzelle Devaire is a thoroughly modern young woman. A small inheritance
has allowed her to expand beyond the normal social strictures of the Republic
of Vonahr. She has traveled abroad (within Vonahr's colonial sphere of
influence) on anthropological expeditions, and now lectures about her experiences
in the capital, Shereen. Of course, her father the Judge thoroughly
disapproves; it is highly inappropriate for a woman to travel alone, without
a man's protection. She has thrown away her best chance of marriage (to
a man who would have been a Marquis had the revolution not intervened).
Luzelle's money is running out, and it looks like she will have to come
slinking back to her parents, and give up her intellectual life.
At twenty-five, she appears destined to die an old maid.
That is, until an official of the Vonahr government makes her an offer:
participate in the Grand Ellipse, at their expense.
Since the winner is allowed a private audience with Miltzin, she can put
herself in a position (ahem) to convince the King to sell the secret of the new
weapon to Vonahr. This is a desperate move, but the Republic is desperate:
it is only a matter of time before Ogron's troops march into Vonahr and
extinguish the Republic. Luzelle's considerable charms were
sure to sway the feckless monarch.
Luzelle is desperate enough to accept the offer. The race
will bring her together (and into competition) with her former fiance Girays
V'Alisante, as well as Karsler Stornzorf, a Grewzian military officer who
is nonetheless so beautiful and gallant that her head is turned. Her adventures will present
her with challenges, physical, intellectual, moral, and spiritual.
She could not afford the luxury of rectitude, it was bound
to slow her down, and she most assuredly could not afford a touchy conscience.
She had known from the start that certain sacrifices would be necessary.
But to find out what sacrifices these are, you will have to read the book.
A fascinating concept, this Edwardian
analogue still infused with
magic, and the novel kept me up until 2 AM reading it. The Grand Ellipse is an analogue of The Great Game
this isn't the most solidly put-together novel, and at certain moments
I was forced to put the thing down. There are holes that aren't sewn
up. Several avenues of plot are partially explored and then abandoned.
Sometimes it seems that Ms. Volsky wrote a much longer novel, then deleted whole sections leaving "seams" in the plot. Who, pray tell, is Een Djaseen
, and do the Festinette twins really
deserve such a fate?
Although The Grand Ellipse is not as good as Volsky's earlier
works Illusion and The White Tribunal, it is still well
worth the read.
In case you were wondering, The Grand Ellipse does not fall within
the SF subgenre called "steampunk", because it is fantasy. But you shouldn't be pigeonholeing things like that anyway.
Update, 6/3/2002: I just wasted two hours of my life watching the cheesey 1965 movie The Great Race, starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Natalie Wood, Peter Falk, and Keenan Wynn. In it, an intrepid female reporter and an aristocratic playboy exchange barbs while racing a pair of dirty tricksters from New York to Paris (yes, via the Bering Strait). Predictably, they fall for each other by the end of the movie. Although Ms. Volsky's book is far better than the movie (for instance, it isn't packed full of insipid, worn-out jokes) the parallels are too many to be ignored. My brain will always associate this fairly good novel with a nasty cinematic excresence from now on; what a pity.