A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA
By Paul Park
Tor. 368 pp. $24.95Fifteen-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.
Miranda Popescu is definitely unfindable, hidden away in a completely different world -- our world -- ignorant of her identity, constantly guarded by avatars of those loyal retainers De Graz and Prochenko. But mostly Miranda is kept protected by The Essential History. For its pages don't just describe, they create. "The world," we learn, "is in two places. One false and one real." Ours is the fabricated, false world. As the baroness accuses the powerful sorceress Aegypta von Schenck (named in homage, I suspect, to John Crowley's Aegypt sequence), " 'Was all this necessary, just to make a place of refuge for your niece? These wars, these names and dates. These fantastical theories -- Copernicus, Darwin, Freud. Look at this section on the United States.' Her fingers moved over a summary of the NASA space program, a description of the achievements of Apollo XI. 'As if anything like this could come out of that wilderness.' "
Aegypta explains that she had 90 scholars working for a decade. Sadly, the First and Second World Wars had to be inserted into 20th-century history simply to ensure the peacefulness and security of Miranda's childhood in Massachusetts. "The project was not finished when the empress turned against me," adds Aegypta. "At the end I was working by myself. Originally, of course, I had hoped to transform the world." Apparently, paradise would look a lot like a quiet small town in the Berkshires. Seems about right.
But in the "real" world, everything pulses with a fierce spectral energy and force. One can communicate with the dead -- and even go down into Hell and return alive. A powerful mage can project his astral image across time and space or create lifelike illusions by mind-power alone. Sensitive empaths may be employed to send messages or be transformed into zombie-like assassins. In America, creatures like the Wendigo are as real as woolly mammoths. There, the "Indians" are actually degenerate Englishmen. Most unexpected of all, each human soul takes the form of some totemic animal -- a bird, butterfly, lizard -- that emerges from the mouth at death but can sometimes be glimpsed in ordinary life. Miranda is frequently referred to as the White Tyger, and we can guess that this is her spiritual self. (I foresee, at some point, the forces for good rallying to the White Tyger, who will lead them into epic battle.)
As A Princess of Roumania continues, Park plays with odd resonances between his two worlds. A house burns outside Bucharest as a fire breaks out in a school in Massachusetts. Deaths subtly mirror each other. More and more, it's clear that the plan to shelter Miranda is breaking down. Or could the plan be more subtle than anyone realizes? And might the princess have grown into a young woman quite different from the one foreseen?
Not least, who is good, who evil? The most wicked characters in the novel often perform acts of charity and kindness and view themselves as more sinned against than sinning. Miranda's protector clearly thinks nothing of the suffering caused by two European wars; all she cares about is keeping the White Tyger safe. When Miranda herself starts to see death with some frequency, she thinks, "This was getting easier. . . . Maybe that's what a princess was, someone who didn't care whether people lived or died."
A Princess of Roumania progresses slowly, but Park has much he wants to show us along the way. Virtually all the characters are surprisingly complex, true mixes of light and dark, often unsure of what they're doing, suffering both mischance and, less often, good fortune. In the end, just the wrong person comes into possession of Kepler's Eye, an amulet imbued with a shocking power.
Miranda's story will continue next year in The Tourmaline. In the meantime, A Princess of Roumania should be enough to soften the blow of summer's end. At the least it provides an escape from -- or is it to? -- the "real" world. *
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is email@example.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.