Tamara's Reviews > The Grand Ellipse

The Grand Ellipse by Paula Volsky
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Sep 26, 2011

bookshelves: adventure, author-female, community-or-something-like-it, female-protagonist, romance, secondary-world, steampunk, travel, war, railway
Read from September 24 to 26, 2011

Well, this is an odd one. Mostly it's a rather good, light, very readable steampunk romp with a likeable heroine with conveniently 21st century sensibilities. The main flaw in this respect is that while theres a certain lip service paid to the Evils of Colonialism, with lots of suffering downtrodden natives and so on, all the actual non-psuedo-european characters who appear are firmly meesteerious easterners or savage southerners.

But then theres the political subplot. While the main story is lots of feisty Victorian adventuress and her cute love interests quite faithfully racing around the world/recreating a mediocre backpacking blog - lots of waiting for trains, having awkward conversations with people who's language you don't actually know, being leered at by creepy men and seeing things you've already seen in photographs - the war story is brutal, firmly twentieth century and based on some combination of the World Wars.

It's a strangely juxtaposition. I didn't quite know how finely to tune my moral radar - how do I regard the heroine's spending a chapter angsting over sabotaging another racer's carriage in a shocking display of poor sportsmanship, when a few chapters later she witnesses an Einsatzgruppen style mass murder of an entire village? Likewise, the whole steampunk-victoriana aesthetic is wildly jarring against the WW2 backdrop. They simply come in entirely different color palettes.

The individualist focus of the former plot becomes almost tragically absurd with the industrialized mass murder connotations of the latter. In particular the subplot about the development of a new magic weapon, quite clearly standing in for the atomic bomb, is drawn as broad farce, all sex, secret identities and funny sounding food. I might suspect theres a certain commentary there, but it never quite makes it, and the end wraps everything up to easily and exquisitely neatly, never managing to bring together the contradictions.

It's largely a fun, lively read that can't decide what period it's sticking too and, to my eye at least, ends up (probably) unintentionally casting it's idealized Victorianism in a strangely unflattering, almost bizarre light. It's definitely an interesting read though, and perhaps i'm just over-analyzing. Then again, whats the fun otherwise?
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