A Princess of Roumania is a book whose literary aspirations get in the way of its entertainment value a bit too often to attract a broad audience. An unusual and challenging work, its appeal will be limited to fantasy readers who don't mind digging through a difficult book to sift out its occasional treasures. While I have a lot of criticisms of it, it's still so fascinating a novel in its way that I couldn't bring myself to pan it any more than I could give it an unqualified rave.
Miranda Popescu is a teenager living in Massachusetts who has been told by her adoptive family that she was rescued from a Romanian orphanage after the fall of tyrant Nicolae Ceaucescu. In fact, she is really Miranda Brancoveanu, from an alternate Earth in which the U.S. is little more developed than it was in the colonial days, and the country of Roumania rules an eastern European empire that can trace itself all the way back to Julius Caesar.
Miranda's father, the German Prince Frederick Schenck von Schenck, was a patriotic war hero to Roumania, married to a Roumanian princess. But when he opposed the men who installed an unpopular empress on the throne, this gave them the pretext his enemies needed to murder him as a traitor. von Schenck's death, in turn, gave German nationalists underneath the Elector of Ratisbon the pretext they needed to attack the capital and liberate Germans under Roumanian rule. But their plans were ratted out and the attack disastrously foiled. During the chaos, the newborn Miranda, whose mother descends from the ancient Roumanian ruling family, was spirited out of Germany by her aunt, Aegypta. Now here is the book's most eyebrow-raising fantasy concept: it turns out that our world, including its entire history, was simply made up out of whole cloth and conjured (an activity illegal in Roumania) into existence by Aegypta to hide Miranda in.
But now Miranda is in trouble due to the machinations of Baroness Nicola Ceaucescu (Aegypta used the baroness as the inspriation for our Earth's tyrannical Ceaucescu, we learn in a witty sequence), a noblewoman who has fallen out of favor with the empress and hopes to use the girl to curry favor with the Germans. Nicola sends agents to our world to bring the girl back to hers, but her plans don't exactly fall into place as hoped. Miranda ends up stranded in the New England countryside with two fellow students and friends, one of whom is now a dog, and some vague instructions on how to get back to Roumania.
This is a fabulous and complex foundation for what is, in the end, yet another variant on the age-old "young person from our world crosses over to another one to fulfill fabulous destiny" premise. Conceptually there are some similarities to Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, but this isn't that book by a long chalk, and not just because Park — who has, incidentally, written much religious-themed fiction — doesn't deal in Pullman's theological concepts. There are a number of nitpicks about the narrative that hinder A Princess of Roumania's meeting its fullest potential. Park isn't a writer who sees much need to unspool his plot with any particular attention to reader-friendliness. The information is there, but you've really got to work at getting it. The book's pacing is wildly uneven, flicking from exciting to humdrum like a light switch. The political scenario and backstory I summarized in the second paragraph of this review is something you won't really have a grasp on until you're about halfway through. And even then, there are details that remain frustratingly elusive. The rules regarding magic in Park's Roumania are also not entirely clear.
But a more serious problem is that Miranda isn't that much of a heroine. Sticking with the Pullman comparisons (since damn near everyone who gave Tor a dust jacket blurb for this book insisted on making one), Miranda is in much the same boat as The Golden Compass's Lyra Belacqua. But she isn't nearly as interesting or absorbing a person. It's entirely believable the way Park depicts Miranda's confusion and anger over the situation in which she finds herself, with everyone she meets absurdly expecting her to save their country somehow. (Under the current wasteful empress, Roumania is crippled by poverty and on the brink of war and rebellion.) But I still didn't feel as much of a connection to Miranda that I should have felt, that I did feel towards Lyra. Most of her scenes are slow going, even the ones where she's encountering mammoths in the American countryside.
Baroness Nicola is a far more interesting and layered character, and her scenes are thus so much more involving and enjoyable than Miranda's. Nicola is a subtler villainess than Pullman's Mrs. Coulter or Martin's Cersei Lannister. Like Cersei, Nicola is rash and impetuous, desperate to maintain her station in life at all costs but prone to leaping before she looks. She wants nothing more than safety but is perfectly happy to court danger, engaging in risky sorcery to find Miranda, to get it. But she isn't the hissable baddie Cersei or Mrs. Coulter are. She's more vain and pitiful, in that you find yourself so fascinated by her you almost want to save her from her own folly. When Nicola's on the page, the novel is magnificent. But there's something disjointed about any story where the villain is so much more vivid than the hero.
I have at times described certain books as being more impressive than entertaining, more admirable for the work that goes into them than what they achieve. But I think to lump A Princess of Roumania casually into that category would be to sell Paul Park's estimable talents short. I think a certain type of reader will take to this story, and, considering how fulsome the quotes on the dust jacket are (from such names as Ursula K. LeGuin), it will probably be readers who are either writers themselves, or who read from the perspective of a writer rather than that of a fan. I found that when I read A Princess of Roumania with my critic's hat squarely in place, paying close attention to Park's technique and his unconventional way of building his world and unfolding his story, I was intrigued despite my criticisms. But when I tried to kick up my heels and settle in for a thrilling adventure, the eyelids started getting heavy. Whichever way your tastes fall, A Princess of Roumania is not a book to be lightly dismissed. In that regard, it has a quality too many fantasies lack.
Followed by The Tourmaline.