Return to Reality
By Cheryl Morgan
Do I really need to review the new Paul Park book? A Princess of Roumania has been lauded by many of the great and the good of the community: Michael Dirda, Ursula Le Guin, Elizabeth Hand, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Karen Joy Fowler, Gene Wolfe, John Crowley, to name but some of the people whose blurbs adorn the cover of the sequel. The original book has also recently been announced as a nominee (and quite possibly hot favorite) for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. But then again, it is just possible that the sequel will fail to live up to the promise of the original. It does, after all, have to be a rather different book. Let’s see.
There were many delightful conceits in A Princess of Roumania. My favorite by far was the idea that our world is merely an artificial construct created by a sorceress in the real world. Many fantasy novels, of course, are grounded in our world. Of those many in turn cast doubt upon the reality of the world into which the book’s heroes travel. Paul Park engagingly turns this idea upside down.
When, to protect her niece, Aegypta Schenck had placed her in an artificial world, had invented the United States of America and the Romanian republic, and had written the book of their history, she’d worried that a seven-year-old child would not be easily adopted from the Constanta orphanage. Rachel and Stanley, the Americans she’d had in mind, were looking for a younger child, a girl no older than three. Thinking also that Miranda would be happier without her childhood memories, she’d tried hard to accommodate them.
You know, I suspect that one of the reasons all of those top name authors loved A Princess of Roumania is that it portrayed Aegypta Schenck as an author herself, a creator of vivid imaginary worlds. But that now is by-the-by. One of the things about writing a series of fantasy or SF novels is that the shock of the new tends to last only for the first volume. You have to work hard to maintain the invention over several books. In general, subsequent volumes are more about plot and character development than about setting the scene. This is very much true of The Tourmaline.
Of course there is new stuff to be learned. A good fantasy author always keeps bits of information back for later volumes so that it can be dribbled out piecemeal to keep the reader interested. For example, we knew from A Princess of Roumania that the Roumanians worship the ancient Greek gods, but what about the rest of the world?
At the same time she told the story of Jesus of Nazareth, how he had led the slaves to revolution on the banks of the Nile. Afterward he led his armies into Italy. He crucified the captured generals before the walls of Rome.
And, of course, the Roumanian royal family is said by some to be directly descended from this Jesus and his queen, Mary Magdalene. What was I saying about delightful conceits?
The bulk of the book, however, is given over to developing things. This happens on at three different levels. Firstly our three American teenagers have to get used to the fact that the world they came from was not real, and that the one that they are now in, the one in which Roumania exists, is both real and potentially deadly to them. Miranda is, after all, a pretender to the throne of Roumania, and Roumania has long since been conquered by the Germans.
Next the characters have to get used to being grown up. As noted in the first quote, Aegypta Schenck shaved five years off Miranda’s life when she hid her in "America". That all came flooding back when Schenck’s artificial world was destroyed. In A Princess of Roumania Miranda was a teenage girl; now she is a young woman.
But most importantly of all the characters have to get used to who they really are. For Miranda all this means is that she starts to recover memories of her life before she was sent into hiding. Her two friends, on the other hand, have a much greater adjustment to make. Peter Gross, the crippled American boy with a passion for epic poetry, turns out to actually be the Chevalier Pieter de Gratz, a soldier whose strength and skill in combat are so legendary that I’m surprised Park has not mentioned the name Heracles in connection with him. As for Andromeda, the sassy confident girl who traveled with them, she is actually Lt. Sasha Prochenko, a raffish handsome officer who can talk his way out of any situation, and his way into any woman’s bed. Little Miranda once had a massive crush on him.
Well, Andromeda is Sasha Prochenko some of the time. The rest of the time she is still a dog. Park spends rather more time on de Gratz than on her, which is possibly just as well because she’s going to be a really complex character to deal with. But I hope he doesn’t shirk the job entirely.
So, we have character development aplenty. We have plot development too. Armed with the titular Tourmaline, the magical gem found in the dead brain of the great sorcerer, Johannes Kepler, Nicola Ceausescu has managed to install herself as the puppet ruler of Roumania. The Elector of Ratisbon has been less fortunate — he has been sent home to Germany in disgrace. But he still has Miranda’s mother, Clara Brancoveanu, and young Felix Ceausescu as hostages, so all is far from lost. Both of the villainous sorcerers are, of course, desperate to regain control of Miranda.
The other great delight of Park’s writing is the quality of his prose. It reminds me of drinking Guinness in Dublin — it is so smooth you hardly notice it going down. This can be a problem, because the liquid, lyrical writing can carry you quickly through sentences that require more attention. As with Gene Wolfe, you have to read Park’s every word or you are likely to miss some vital clue.
For the most part, Park’s writing also has a realist sheen to it. He manages to describe the weird stuff in such a matter-of-fact way that you feel it is the real world he is talking about, which of course, from his point of view, it is. Characters from "civilized" countries such as Germany and Egypt tend to insist that the supernatural doesn’t exist. Only rarely does the magical world underpinning Roumania break through, as here where Miranda is attacked by thugs working for the vampire, Zelea Codreanu.
Their faces were inhuman, distorted not just by thuggishness and fear, but by a new kind of nature. In each of them she could see a spirit animal scratching and struggling to get out, as if caught in a transparent human bag. In some cases the membrane had already peeled away, revealing the stalklike eyes and active mandibles of insects and shellfish or the unformed faces of baby animals, as if seen through a splitting caul.
Needless to say, only Miranda’s eyes see this transformation.
What conclusions can we draw from all this? The Tourmaline will, I think, seem like more of the same to most people. Those who are disappointed will be readers for whom the freshness and originality of the setting were the primary delights of A Princess of Roumania. For such people sequels are almost always a let-down.
The real squeals of anguish, however, will come from people expecting an ending. I noted in my review of A Princess of Roumania that it seems like a book that had been cut in two. I was wrong. It was the first part of a series, each of which has a cliffhanger ending. The conclusion of The Tourmaline is even less satisfying than that of the first book. And I’m sorry to report that when I met Park at a reading in Berkeley last year he told me that he thought there would be at least four books, maybe more. I do hope he gets on and writes them. I want to know what happens next.