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A Princess of Roumania
Paul Park
Tor, 368 pages

A Princess of Roumania
Paul Park
Paul Park has written several novels, including Celestis and The Gospel of Corax. His short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and several anthologies. He lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife, Deborah, and their daughter, Miranda.

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SF Site Review: If Lions Could Speak and Other Stories

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alma A. Hromic

It's a fabulous conceit -- an alternative world where Romania (sorry, Roumania!) is a world power. If nothing else, it's ripe new territory -- it is probably doubtful if the average reader, even one who has heard of the place, could accurately point to it on a map other than helplessly waving their hand over the general region of Eastern Europe. This makes it perfect as a fantasy setting, since a good writer could do anything they damn well pleased with it, and still come out on top.

Instead, Paul Park creates a world which is ruled by what seems remarkably like the power struggles in Belle Époque Europe in the halcyon days of before World War I, complete with glowering Prussians (I don't recall now if he mentioned a monocle and boots shined to a mirror-like finish and epaulettes, but if he didn't they were the unwritten trappings that clung to his Elector like ticks and were impossible to shake -- which made him a remarkably clichéd character despite the aspect of magic with which the cliché had been leavened). Its main villain is a woman who appears to be a cross between the Empress Theodora of Byzantium and Evita Peron, and whose only real claim to Real Badness™ appears to be her name -- which, given that it is Nicola Ceaucescu, carries enough Bad Baggage to telegraph that she was the villainess even without her actions.

Which actions, I must say, baffled me.

This, then, is the main thrust of the story: the eponymous Princess of the title is also something called the White Tyger, and is apparently supposed to save the world -- but her father had met an untimely death and her mother gave birth to her while a prisoner in "enemy hands," so her aunt, apparently a powerful mage, smuggles the child out and creates an "alternative universe" -- ours, as it happens -- to hide her in until such time as she can be retrieved to do her thing back in her own dimension. This powerful mage is subsequently awfully easily dispatched -- first by the Baroness Ceaucescu (who has been portrayed, up until that moment, as a mere dabbler in alchymical magics but who manages to destroy a greater mage with almost absurd ease) and then, subsequently, after death as it were, by her own pride and complacency because her niece refuses to act out the part that she had been assigned -- to wit, come rescue her dead aunt, and return to Roumania in triumph. But this aunt has created a whole ALTERNATE UNIVERSE -- one which is portrayed as being considerably more advanced than her own -- and the best way of protecting her vulnerable niece might well have been to cross over herself and take care of the child rather than allow her to go through being adopted (the Orphans from Romania trope -- nicely wedged in) and taken to modern-day America.

Of course, things unravel fast, and the book which is the gateway between the two universes pulls our heroine back into her childhood world. But dear Lord, what a mess ensues. Hit men with Balkan accents kidnap our heroine, who crossed over accompanied by what used to be a one-handed boy and a pretty girl who were her best friends in the "alternate" reality and who have now transmogrified into a reincarnation of an old soldier once loyal to her father and a yellow Labrador, and they travel through a North America peopled by mammoth-hunting yellow-haired savages who wander the continent singing verses by William Blake. In the meantime, back in Roumania, the Baroness Ceaucescu is busy evading debt collectors, police, and the German mafia in Roumania, while indulging in the occasional murder, trying to grab our princess-heroine for her own nefarious but never clearly stated goals, and clinging to a magical tourmaline which makes people love you. (In fact, this seems to be the main story, after all, because in the flap blurb we are told that this particular tale will be continued in 2006 with a book called "The Tourmaline")

Confused yet...?

It isn't that I hated it. It isn't even that I disliked it in a major way, despite the occasional clunkiness of dialogue and the apparent conviction of the author that the reader was approaching A Princess of Roumania with a background knowledge of a history which never existed except in the author's own head. It's just that this is a book in which Nothing Really Happens, at least nothing that I can understand, or relate to, or care about. Paul Park's protagonists just haven't graduated to making me care what happens to them.

I know what he is trying to do -- he is trying to write contemporary fantasy, magic realism, whatever they call it these days. But fantasy and reality, even just plain fiction and reality, are two very different things -- and frankly I don't particularly want to read about the intimate details of Miranda's bodily functions when they seem to serve no particular purpose other than to jump and down and scream, "look, we're here, we are the details that are so very real that this book can't possibly be pure fantasy." In a book, things that happen, things that are said, need to have a role and a function and they need to be vitally important to the story -- otherwise, however brilliant they are, they have no place. The author himself is dimly aware of this fact; his protagonist says, at one point,

"In books you always know the rules. Or at least if there were rules you could learn them. That's the difference between stories and real life, I thought. But maybe nothing real ever makes sense, ever feels like home. Understanding it won't help. That's what I mean."
What he is trying to do is write a book that doesn't want to be a book, a fiction that wants to be reality. It doesn't work, for me. This whole book, in fact, feels like it's a confused and very dream-like preamble to the Real Story that is to follow, the book called "The Tourmaline," but that second book, on the strength of having read this first one, is not something I'll be breathlessly waiting for.

Don't take my word for it, if you don't care to -- people of the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin, Jonathan Lethem, John Crowley, Kim Stanley Robinson and Karen Joy Fowler all seem to have loved it, according to the blurbs that thickly cover the dust jacket. Opinions are subjective, after all you may love it too. But as far as I am concerned, I prefer my fiction to have rules -- and as for real life, I'll live that outside the covers of a book.

Copyright © 2006 Alma A. Hromic

Alma A. Hromic, addicted (in random order) to coffee, chocolate and books, has a constant and chronic problem of "too many books, not enough bookshelves." When not collecting more books and avidly reading them (with a cup of coffee at hand), she keeps busy writing her own. Her international success, The Secrets of Jin Shei, has been translated into ten languages worldwide, and its follow-up, Embers of Heaven, is coming out in 2006. She is also the author of the fantasy duology The Hidden Queen and Changer of Days, and is currently working on a new YA trilogy to be released in the winter of 2006.

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