Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, September 4, 2005


By Paul Park

Tor. 368 pp. $24.95

Fifteen-year-old Miranda is seemingly an all-American girl, a good friend to both the popular Andromeda and the outcast Peter. She quarrels a bit with her mother, as you might expect with any teenager, while her quiet astronomer-father simply adores her. Of course, she was actually adopted from a Roumanian orphanage at the age of 3, and her true parentage remains somewhat mysterious: Hidden among the child's few belongings were an old and apparently valuable bracelet and a strange book, titled The Essential History . This volume appears to be a simple chronicle of the world, country by country, from the distant past to the present.

Or is it?

Throughout her life, Miranda has been haunted by strangely vivid dreams. In many, she receives instructions from an elderly, elegant woman in furs, and chief among those instructions is the command to keep the book safe. Miranda is also told that she will be protected by De Graz and Prochenko -- whoever they might be. Not least, the young girl sometimes recalls a stone villa by the sea, nothing like any place near her Massachusetts town in the Berkshires.

Awkward around boys, envious of her charismatic friend Andromeda, worried about why she hasn't gotten her first period yet, Miranda could be anyone's daughter, safe in her safe little world. But then, at the end of summer, when high school is about to begin, Miranda discovers . . .

Paul Park knows fairy tales, contemporary and classic fantasy, and literary science fiction, and he borrows tropes from all these genres. So readers will find, as they enjoy this long novel (the first volume of two or more), that it provides the pleasures of the familiar -- indeed, the archetypal -- without neglecting some twists and enigmatic variations all its own. At times, though, it's bound to remind you of the Harry Potter books, Philip Pullman's novels about Lyra Belacqua and even Gene Wolfe's recent The Knight and The Wizard , as well as such older classics as The Wizard of Oz , Joan Aiken's Dido Twite chronicles and even Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle . But then all these works draw from the same well of fantasy, the same pool of dreams and nightmares.

While Miranda is beginning to worry about a pack of peculiar kids who seem to be stalking her, Park unexpectedly shifts his narrative to Bucharest. Or rather "Bucharest." For this Roumanian capital isn't quite the one we know.

In fact, it dominates a Europe where history has run along an alternate time-line. England has sunk into the sea. America is still largely an outpost for hunters and fur traders. People rely on horse-drawn carriages and steamships. Magic works -- Kepler was primarily an alchemist -- though conjuring is a crime. While people worship at Cleopatra's Temple or the Grotto of Venus, they also call upon demons like Sennacherib and pray to King Jesus. Most important, Europe appears divided between Germany and Greater Roumania, the two locked in a struggle for mastery that sometimes erupts in violence.

This Roumania of the imagination is now ruled by a vicious Gen. Antonescu and his cruel empress. But many citizens still remember and honor the ancient royal family, even though its only surviving member, the queen, is held captive in Ratisbon, Germany. However, rumor has it that the queen gave birth to a daughter just before her imprisonment. Though mighty forces have searched long and hard, the child has apparently vanished from the face of the earth.

Indeed, she has. The princess of Roumania has been spirited away to where the evil, yet oddly human and banal Baroness Ceausescu and the oily Elector of Ratisbon can never find her. So long, of course, as the book is kept safe.

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