Steampunk Fantasy Romance: The Grand Ellipse

The Grand EllipseA few readers have asked me what other books I might recommend that are like Clockwork Heart. The novel that instantly leaps to mind is Paula Volsky’s richly textured The Grand Ellipse (2000). Although it’s primarily gaslamp fantasy, I think fans of steampunk, fantasy, and romance will appreciate it: the main characters possess very Victorian outlooks and prejudices, and 19th-century technologies abound, so that along with arcane adepts, shamans, and various types of nonhumans, you’ll find locomotives, steamships, hot-air balloons, gas lights, and firearms.

The Grand Ellipse begins with a nod to Jules Verne’s (1873) Around the World in Eighty Days. The king of Low Hetz proposes an international race he calls the Grand Ellipse, which requires contestants to complete a great circuit of the continent, getting their passports stamped at each stop. The course begins in Low Hetz and moves through “the modern, comparatively civilized western nations, stretched far eastward, curving through the remote mountainous reaches of largely untamed Bizaqh and Zuleekistan, through the savage forests of Oorex, even as far as exotic Aveshq” (p. 36). The winner will be granted title, land, and money.

Luzelle Devaire, a Vonarhrish scholar-adventurer whose small reserve of money is about to run out, must either secure her reputation or go crawling back to her conservative and disapproving father and consign herself to life under his thumb. In the face of such a choice, the offer by Deputy Underminister vo Rouvignac to fund her participation in the Grand Ellipse seems like the answer to her prayers. If she wins, not only will she be allowed to keep the reward, but she’ll also achieve enough public recognition to secure her future as a researcher and lecturer.

However, her government’s sponsorship comes with a price. If Devaire wins the race, the Vonarhrish Foreign Ministry expects her to use her private audience with King Miltzin IX of Low Hetz to convince him to sell Vonarh the secret to Sentient Fire, an arcane discovery that His Majesty, prizing his Low Hetz’s time-honored tradition of neutrality, refuses to release. Devaire is to use any means necessary to wheedle from the king the Sentient Fire or, at least, information about the adept’s location, because if Vonahr doesn’t get this ultimate weapon, it’s going to fall to the despotic and powerful Grewzian Imperium, which has already conquered most of the neighboring countries.

It’s the kind of request that never would have been made of a proper, respectable Vonarhrish lady, but because Devaire travels to strange lands, publishes scholarly papers, and gives public lectures, clearly — the government assumes — she’s a “lady of some worldly knowledge, experience, and sophistication.”

Desperate for money and eager for fame, Devaire clamps down on her indignation and agrees to the terms.

But matters grow more complicated as she enters the Grand Ellipse and meets her fellow contestants. They include the prankish and obscenely wealthy Festinette twins, Stesian and Trefian, who won’t hesitate to use their money to their advantage; the brooding, muscular, and heavily drinking Bav Tchornoi, who has a violent streak; the inventor Szett Urrazole and her Miracle Self-Propelling Carriage, who leaves everyone else choking on her dust; the kindly but financially strapped speculator Mesq’r Zavune; the tedious merchant Porb Jil Liskjil; the stammering blueblood Foune Hay-Frinl; the physician Dr. Phineska …

…  the devastatingly handsome Grewzian military hero Overcommander Karsler Stornzof, whose country is poised to invade Vonahr …

… and Devaire’s ex-fiance, whom she fled seven years ago, the older, aristocratic, and ever-so-proper Girays v’Alisante.

The Grand Ellipse follows Devaire, Stornzof, and v’Alisante through far-flung and dangerous lands, where they grapple with strange customs, perilous weather, wild animals, mysterious sabotage, political tension, unknown magic, and all kinds of conveyances both living, arcane, and mechanical as they vie with each other and the rest of the competition to get their passports stamped and be the first back to Low Hetz.  But back in Low Hetz, the adept who summoned the Sentient Fire is having certain problems of his own keeping Masterfire’s childishly eager appetite in check….

Volsky’s fantasy world is imaginatively described and unfolds before the reader, as it does before the race’s contestants, one unusual country after another. However, it’s the interpersonal relationships that make the characters so endearing. The web of romance, rivalry, and respect that develops between Devaire, Stornzof and v’Alisante is wonderfully developed through the novel, as each character ends up forcing the other to confront his or her own prejudices and personal shortcomings. Can Devaire reconcile her own sense of morality with her ambitious attempt to win her independence? Is Stornzof’s code of honor stronger than his sense of duty? Can v’Alisante overcome his traditional upbringing and accept Devaire’s independent nature?  Which one will win Devaire’s heart? And what will happen at the end — for unless Devaire can win the race and then steel herself to seduce the secret of the Sentient Fire from randy King Miltzin, her country and every other will fall to the might of the Grewzian Imperium.

The Grand Ellipse is a thoroughly satisfying adventure story, combining magic, technology, and romance. I highly recommend it.

Other steampunk-friendly books:

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist

The Dark Volume
by Gordon Dahlquist
The Engine’s Child by Holly Phillips

Comments are closed.