[Review] The Only Harmless Great Thing – Of Sentient Elephants and Radium Girls

The Only Harmless Great Thing
Title: The Only Harmless Great Thing
Author: Brooke Bolander
Publisher: Tor
Release Date: January 23rd, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Alternate History
Page Count: 96 pages

Rating: 8.5/10




Books like this remind me just why I love Sci-fi/Fantasy. Not that I need reminders. Not really. I grew up teething on SFF stories, after all. But occasionally a story comes along that fills me with so much fierce pride and wonder and envy, it leaves me breathless, and they become testaments to the (limitless) heights one can reach in the genre.

In The Only Harmless Great Thing, Brooke Bolander takes two true, but disparate, stories–that of the women who worked in U.S. radium factories and an elephant named Topsy–and weaves them together into something wholly original and no less heartbreaking.

This is a story of sentient elephants and radium girls and injustice heaped upon humans and animals alike.

From the late 1910’s to the 1920’s, radium factories began appearing in the United States. Women were hired by these factories to paint watch dials with a special radium paint that would make the numbers glow in the dark. Except, it turns out, radium is highly poisonous and the factories have doomed these women to severe illnesses and painful deaths.

In Bolander’s version, the girls who work at the factories are soon to be replaced by captured elephants. The logic is that the girls are dying (and have stirred up legal disputes) and the elephants are larger and hardier than humans so they’ll last longer. The girls’ job is to teach the elephants to paint the dials. Or, more appropriately: “I’m supposed to teach you how to die.”

One such girl is Regan, and one such elephant is Topsy.

The beginning is a little confusing, but stick through it and you begin to get a clearer picture of the cast, the timelines, and the different narrations. The story jumps all across history, from the ice age to the present day to the 1920’s. It alternates from fable-like narrations riddled with abstraction and strange, gorgeous metaphors, to more modern, conventional ones.

And the prose? The prose is glorious. Glorious and clever and brutal.

No matter what you did, forty or fifty or a hundred years passed and everything became a narrative to be toyed with, masters of media alchemy splitting the truth’s nucleus into a ricocheting cascade reaction of diverging realities.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is a very short read, but it packs a punch with the force of a thousand stampeding elephants. I am in awe of how the author managed to combine such different elements into something fantastical yet so very real. My only complaint is that it ended a little sooner than I thought it would and I wish there was more of it. Which really isn’t much of a complaint.

Brooke Bolander has become one of my authors to watch and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.

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