A Small in Wonder by the Park – A Princess of Roumania

A Princess of Roumania is a bit of a small wonder of accomplishment; an actualization of a unique blend in SFF publishing today, a combination of quality writing while utilizing a fantastic backdrop and a quest element that gives the work an accessibility to a significant more amount of readers and potential fans than that would usually accompany a genre work written in such stature. In short, although certainly not his intent, Paul Park (check out my interview with him) may fool some previously unexposed into reading a well-written book.

To those aware of Park’s reputation I could not imagine it being diminished, and as first time Park reader like myself, I suffered no disappointment. Park gives us both the real world as we are accustomed to but never was, and the surreal reality of an alternative history setting that is both dreamlike and organic in atmosphere. Park populates the worlds with believable characters that establish relatable ties with both other characters and their environment, as he offers several perspectives to walk the reader through his world and help us answer the question of why are powers that rule and in some cases create worlds and realities shifting their attention from civilized Europe to the mostly frontier land of the Western Hemisphere, in search of the prophesized return of the White Tyger, a harbinger of freedom and hope for Roumania, and a potential threat to the balance of power for the civilized world.

We live in a world where many young women are princesses. Most of which only until awaking from either an unfounded daydream, or hold a title of little relevance to anyone but themselves and various people who think they are news reporters. For a teenage girl in a small, contemporary Massachusetts town, Miranda Popescu neither is true. She dreams she is something more, perhaps a young girl fancying to be more desirable and outgoing than her best friend Andromeda, or perhaps her life is a storybook dream written specifically for her, not to live, but to hide, until her true life begins…

A former renowned and extolled actress across Europe, the alluring and widowed Baroness Nicola Ceausescu searches for the lost heir of Roumania. A pawnshop visit away from being beggared, she navigates through a political climate in Bucharest that has been gradually turning against her and Roumanians in general. A semi-competent conjurer, a murderer, a mother, and once subject of applause by the haute monde, she adjusts to a peripheral role in a game I think she is no longer sure what side she is on, if any…

A young boy, Peter Gross, is like many we knew in high school some of us picked on, but most ignored. The only child of a working class father, and a dead mother, picked on by other kids at school due to a birth defected crippled hand, Peter is a friend of Miranda’s even when it’s not reciprocated. Peter travels with Miranda through a familiar but only vaguely, new world, wondering who he really is, all the while carrying his harmonica, playing poetry that serve as memories taught to him by his mother…

A pox afflicted look on a face only anticipated by street urchins he traditionally offers handouts to, the elector of Ratisbon, a conjurer of considerable power no longer held in check with the passing of a rival, he seeks a White Tyger and a certain tourmaline in hopes of possessing them will give him both regard and stature in a newly formed government…

Transcending reality, Aegypta Schenck, blood of both the rightful rulers and the White Tyger, appears in Miranda’s dreams. With seemingly ubiquitous enemies, she attempts to change history on multiple fronts; a history she may very well have written…

Park populates his world with several other characters in a setting where travelers still make pilgrimages to Venus’s shrine, where magic is present but the practice of which is prohibited, where the United Kingdom is an afterthought in word affairs; decimated by natural disaster, where a murderer can be in two places at once, and where fair-haired tribal populate North America. Park picks an alternate Romania, a perfect parallel-European setting, where Park’s recreation of history seems almost more plausible than the real world scenes, choosing a country where stark realities exist in unison with ancient myth and folklore. Several examples of the familiar are present that Park reinserts into history; for example a sought after jewel bears the name of Kepler’s Eye, a reference to the German scientist Johannes Kepler, Nicola perhaps a female play on the since executed former head of Romania Nicolae Ceausescu. The union of history and the fantastic is seamless; history fans should feel no hindrance, but instead be delighted by their catches of Park’s twisiting the the worlds’s history and the geopolitical nature of his setting.

Park’s triumph is a notable one, as he does what seems impossible, although we know it’s not. Park uses fantasy archetypes (the orphan princess, the unlikely champion, the best friend at heel, predetermined destiny,) and not only weaves a credible story, but doesn’t choose to limit himself to past levels of success with these tropes but uses the familiar as vehicles into the unknown. Responsible characterization gives A Princess of Roumania a personal and identifiable feel, and Nicola, true to her past prowess as an actress, threatens to steal the show. At the same time being one of the years most enjoyable antagonists and enlightening female characters of the year, the Baroness is a fascinating read whether at formal function, shining even surrounded by the opulence of the Bucharest wealthy, or in the grips of murder. Equally engaging when her thoughts drift to her hospitalized son, as when she is when conjuring spells taking effect a world away, Nicola is a sympathetic character, one that to label as a villain would be a disservice — which is a sign of a worthy read. Another rarity, Park has more believable female characters in this, a first installment of a series, than some more recognizable authors do going into the eleventh book in their respective series. Miranda’s book, ‘The Essential History’ joins a virtual pantheon of famous genre books as plot devices that includes the likes of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, and used by others like Goldman, Borges, Michael Ende, and recently Hal Duncan’s Book of All Hours.

Park’s prose and narrative poses as accessible but is just masked subtlety, as he gives the moment weight but at the same time layers his narrative with relevant history. He is as effective gifting a random backyard with descriptive language as he is when describing a surreal zoo-like afterlife. Whether the focus of attention or peripheral, Park breathes life into his surroundings:

“After a moment she stepped forward. She broke through a clump of juniper bushes, and then stopped again. In front of her was Umar’s formal garden, much overgrown. Paths of soft grass made their way among brambles that had covered Umar’s Roses and poppies. A thicket had grown up around the statue of Athena, and the stone bench was invisible. Briar grew over the Magdalena fountain. Irises were in bloom”

Merely a descriptive paragraph but in its content a wealth of information, and at a glance reveals many elements in the novel. His command is especially evident in scenes when depicting action occurring in different places or sometimes planes simultaneously, giving instances of spell casting a true magical quality, occurring without stopping the narrative or mundane action occurring in its presence at the same time.

I did say first installment of a series. A Princess of Roumania has planned sequels dubbed The Tourmaline and The White Tyger, and is a true series table setter. This should not be reason for those of us who eye new genre series’ with some level of understood and conditioned trepidation; instead it should be viewed as the quality start of a potentially promising series like The Physiognomy was for Jeffrey Ford, not similar in content or theme mind you, but in relation to across-the-board quality you will see with Park in a series opener that will resonate immediately with those who admired The Golden Compass, with a tang of Crowley-like mixture where reality and myth are not a dichotomy, but a delightful combination.

A fascinating and elegant beginning to a true high fantasy offering of a scarce variety; one that uses beloved archetypes to convey a unique vision, not what has become the usual of the sub-genre, a book written simply to fill up with archetypes — a series that has no target genre audience, but can and should be enjoyed by all.

Pure enjoyment.