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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.   Nevertheless, 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.