Raised by her adoptive family in a quiet Massachusetts town, teenager Miranda Popescu is astonished to discover that she is a princess from an alternate world that is split by a deadly political battle.
You know, it’s called fantasy literature for a reason. And let’s face it…you do it too. Everyone does, and maybe adopted children do it more than anyone else. What if your parents weren’t your parents, what if your homeland wasn’t your homeland, what if you were born to be a princess ruling a far away land somewhere in your imagination? You need not have spent a lot of your life trying to get through wardrobes to get to Narnia — or down rabbit holes to get to Wonderland, or pick your fantasy of choice — to understand the appeal of A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA.
The real world in which we live (unless you’re reading this on a broadband hookup from Oz) can be a dark, difficult and dangerous place. Although fantasy worlds can be dark and difficult at times, they’re largely meant to be escapist and fun. What author Paul Park has done in A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA is to make things in the alternate fantasy world darker, more dangerous, and much less fun — to the point where characters in the fantasy world tend to see our reality as their fantasy.
In the fantasy world of A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA, the sixteenth century isn’t dead, or else it has been going on for a very long time. America is still a trackless wilderness, populated by its native people and a few brave English and Dutch colonists. The kingdom of Roumania is under the thumb of its German occupiers. Meanwhile, the disinherited Baroness Ceausescu — once the leading lady of the stage, now the penniless widow of an alchemist — plots her return to power. And the way to get power is to gain control over the rightful heiress to the throne.
Meanwhile, the rightful heiress to the throne is in high school in the Massachusetts that you and I know, hanging out with friends, exploring the woods around her home, and, from time to time, looking at the mysterious artifacts she has had all her life. Miranda Popescu is a normal teenager of Romanian descent, adopted out of a Romanian orphanage shortly after the fall of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. (And yes, there is a connection.) She has only vague unanswered questions about her past, and does not know that she is at the center of intrigue, mystery, and an unknowable destiny.
To say much more about what happens to Miranda would be unfair — and it would be even less fair to say what happens to her friends and how they come to accompany her to the alternate Roumania. However, despite a good deal of magical doings, and a subtle and malicious plot, all that A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA manages to do is set a scene. It is clearly intended to be book one of a series, although you might not know that at first. Readers looking for a sense of closure would be advised to look somewhere else, or to wait for the (hopefully) inevitable sequel.
Until then, the real question for the reader is whether he or she wants to spend time in Park’s fantasy world. The world that is created for the reader is dense in detail, in smoke, and in political maneuvering. There is magic both in the story and in the rich, layered, baroque style in which it is written. But it is a world with a long and complicated history, with subtly different rules. There is almost a textbook quality to the novel at times. While it is undoubtedly a complex and challenging work, it feels like it’s almost trying too hard to prove that it outclasses its roots in fantasy literature. The only problem with A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA is that it’s a bit of a struggle to get down that rabbit hole.