Published: Tor, 2005
One author who is mentioned several times in the quotations printed on the back of A Princess of Roumania is Philip Pullman. Now, anyone who has read my reviews of the His Dark Materials trilogy will know that Pullman is an author I think massively overrated, and so I found this somewhat off-putting. The praise I had read for A Princess of Roumania in the end persuaded me to give it a try, and I am glad that I did. While I can understand the comparison to Pullman, Park has more interesting ideas, a more atmospheric setting, and, above all, the ability to write convincing characters; while many consider His Dark Materials a classic, A Princess of Roumania is much more deserving of the label.
The story is simple; in fact, it is the ultimate fantasy cliché: the lost heir. Park mixes it with alternative universes, also not especially new: hiding the lost heir in our world is something I planned to use in an abandoned novel I began in 1991, among other uses of the idea. The first slightly unusual aspect to A Princess of Roumania is that our world is the fictional one, magically created solely to hide the princess Miranda from her family's enemies. Park's Roumania is a great power in decline, threatened principally by the Germans; her father was wrongfully accused of betraying Roumania to them twenty years earlier, an event which led to the elevation of one of the Roumanian generals as the power behind the throne. The baby Miranda was hidden by her aunt, an adept of magic, with the aid of a pair of books: each describing the history of a world, one real and one fictional; when both books are destroyed, the spell is broken and Miranda is returned to the "real" world. An odd quirk means she's fifteen even though twenty years have passed: this is not explained (though of course future novels in the series may do so) and suggests that the flow of time in magical worlds is different from that in the real world, an idea which goes back to folk stories where people kidnapped by fairies find that after a single night everyone they knew is dead of old age.
The pace is slow; the point of the novel being to establish the characters and set the stage for their interactions. Quite a lot does actually happen - it just feels relaxed to read it. Park doesn't quite manage the (surely impossible) task of persuading the reader that his Roumania is more real than the world we live in, but he comes closer than a lot of writers. It is the characters which really excel. This makes Park's work reminiscent in truth of one of the other authors to whom he is compared on the back of A Princess of Roumania, John Crowley, who is one of my favourite authors of all. Involving, rather than exciting, is the order of the day; and A Princess of Roumania is guaranteed a place on my reads of the year.