Paul Park’s magical Roumania

Paul Park. A Princess of Roumania (TOR 2005).
Paul Park. The Tourmaline (TOR 2006).
Paul Park. The White Tyger (TOR 2007).

With a group of accolades from everyone from Ursula K LeGuin to Jonathan Lethem & John Crowley, A Princess of Roumania, as the first volume of a trilogy, offers a strange brew of possible multi-world, alternate history, alchemical fantasy, with a winning young hero & her 2 companions pulled or thrust into both the midst of a battle for the soul of a country & a quest for understanding & selfhood. Miranda Popescu has grown up in a Massachusetts college town with her adoptive parents, & has a best friend, Andromeda & a sort of friend, a working class fellow student, Peter, whom she has gotten to know better over one summer when Andromeda was away. Or so she thinks.

But she is in fact the last of a long line of rulers in Roumania, a large European country in an alternate world that might be the ‘real’ world. Her aunt, a powerful conjurer, wrote a book describing our world, (including the small country of Romania ruled by the Ceausescus) & somehow placed Miranda there to keep her away from those who would harm, use, or kill her, but now one of those enemies has tracked her down, & eventually another, a German patriot & master conjurer, will be after her too. But that only happens after she & her friends have been pushed into her origin world, where her two friends are old lieges of her father somehow changed & younger than they were, Pieter de Graz & Count Prochenko. An entirely different history occurred there, & Roumania is an important European country, its history attached to the old Roman Empire, Britain was destroyed in an earthquake, much scientific advancement happened in the Arab countries, & North America is mainly wilderness. There she finds helpers & enemies, most specifically the Baroness Ceausescu, who has sent men to capture her in the still almost unsettled North America, where many of the English settlers have become like the natives, small tribes living in the forests of what would be the northeastern states in the ‘fictional’ world where Miranda has lived for so long.

A Princess of Roumania follows Miranda & her friends as they try to reach Albany & a man who will help her get to Europe & her aunt in one narrative thread; in the other, it follows the activities of the Baroness as she tries to control things in Bucharest as well as stop a German scientist/conjurer, an important Elector, who has held Miranda’s mother in his castle since her aunt & daughter escaped his clutches (he knows that Miranda, ‘the white tyger,’ could rally her people if she ever came to be known, & he wants Germany to gain power over Roumania, a country he believes to be backward as opposed to the scientifically advanced Germany he serves).

If this sounds complicated, it’s because it is. Yet Park handles all the strands of it with élan. But what makes the book so winning is his characterizations, not just of Miranda & her friends, who become so different in their new (old) world, but also her enemies, whose complex motivations & actions within an old-fashioned social hierarchy mark them as both hobbled by ancient undemocratic conventions & willing to dare great evil to achieve their ends. The Baroness is one of the great villains with her willingness to do anything to gain her ends, which she sees as Roumania’s, even murder, while both feeling great guilt & finding always the necessary excuse for her behavior. That they also often misread what is happening when they act adds to the dark pleasure of reading this novel.

While playing to the strengths of almost all the conventions of the genres Park has gathered into his narrative, A Princess of Roumania transcends them as it tells a marvelous multifaceted tale: of Miranda’s slow discovery of self; of a visit to the underworld of death; of various social & political plots carried out in the ‘real’ world of Roumania; & of the violence people will do in obedience to personal & political faith. It’s very good, just as all those writers said.

In The Tourmaline, Miranda comes to Roumania, 5 years later; Peter & Andromeda slowly find their way there over that 5 year period Miranda has shifted through as she regained her ‘real’ age, changing into their ‘real’ world selves, at least somewhat, but Andromeda can be both dog & woman; & Peter is becoming Pieter. And the various powers trying to help & hinder Miranda, as well as the other two, fight their battles, both in the world & in the underworld of conjuring. The Baroness now thinks she is the Whyte Tiger & ‘rules’ in Roumania under the German occupation; Germany is fighting other wars, especially in Russia; the Elector is isolated in his home & fighting in the other world to ‘protect’ his country, Germany. Much happens on all fronts, so to speak, Miranda slowly moving across Roumania with her Gypsy companion, the other two eventually getting there, but there’s a little matter of the uranium isotope the Baroness has ordered from Abyssinia & which is opened during an attack on the train carrying it (as well as Pieter & Prochenko).Losing his ally, Pieter de Graz eventually reaches Miranda as she is fighting a battle against many others in the underworld as the true white tyger, & things just get ever stranger toward the end.

Trying to summarize all the actions in these intertwined plots would take a long time, indeed. I found at least as interesting the tone Park maintains as the narrative skitters across borders, classes, & especially realms of reality, magic, & dream: one of faux naïve plainness: these things just happen, & they are written down as is. A tone of fairy tale, then, but slyly sophisticated at the levels of characterization & narrative perspective. The swerves from one level to another are sudden & sharp, but the narration remains clear, unclouded, & just ironic enough to keep readers on their toes. Meanwhile, the actual story, with all its thriller underpinnings, keeps readers turning the pages. It’s really quite an achievement.

Much the same can be said of the narratives making up The White Tyger. What seems to be the final book of this series/trilogy concludes in a startling manner (yet there is, perhaps, room for another volume). Wars, political connivance, betrayals & murder & love & sex & loyalty, often in unexpected ways: it’s all here, carried by Park’s impressively cool style. Captured by the Roumanian police, Miranda & Peter are held, along with her mother & the Baroness’s son in the palace, where the Baroness ‘rules’ as ‘the white tyger’ more or less on behalf of the German occupiers of her country – yet she also, at least in her own mind, fights for her country against them. And works on her great opera about her own life, ‘The White Tyger.’ Meanwhile, Andromeda/Prochenko still sickens from the radiation s/he suffered in the train crash at the border & gets involved with the young wife of a Roumanian general. And helps Miranda escape, eventually.

Miranda can still enter the spirit world/underworld only in dreams, & there she is very powerful but does not know exactly what to do. A group of conjurers, all women, try to help her but also control her. In the end, because she is still so much the Miranda who grew up in Massachusetts, she fails to carry our her aunt’s plans, keeps not reading her ‘orders,’ or keeping hold of her talismans; & at the end, she fades from the narrative because she simply does not want to become a princess/ruler (in this way Park suggests that her aunt built the false world of his reader’s history too well: she is a modern American democrat). The novel becomes more & more the (hi)story of the Baroness Ceausescu, driven, artistic, power-mad, & all too aware of her own moral failings. She manages to murder both her real son & her adopted one. She works to destroy Miranda & her friends. She falls in love with Prochenko but can only express that love through imprisoning him after conjuring a spell to make him desire her. She works on her opera, &, at the end, arrested by her enemy, the general, & the policeman she has used & betrayed, she enacts it on stage (but utilizing a simulacrum & planning to escape in disguise). Yet her late love destroys her & the book just suddenly ends. Is it because her story is over & this has all been about her? Miranda’s may be too, although she disappeared, escaped the Baroness, earlier & could return in another; or could she?

Miranda is a terrific young hero, in many ways, especially with her reckless manner of going forward, but the Baroness grew, as the novels developed, into such a powerful & large tragic villain that she took over the main story. In her self-examinations, her recognition of her own guilt even as she found ways to displace it onto others, in her overreaching for power, she is a majestically complex, not exactly ‘evil’ but certainly dangerous & troubling figure. If Park does not write another volume, then The White Tyger is a powerful & troublingly ambiguous conclusion to this series, a series that insisted from the beginning that its characters (& by extension its readers) lived in many worlds at once, whether they know it or not.

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