Chapter 3 of Paul Park’s A Princess of Roumania consists of a prickly conversation between two women we have never met before, in an as-yet-unknown time and place we may only assume is the Roumania of the title. It’s unclear throughout most of the scene which character, if any, is the point of view. From sentence to sentence, Park refers to the two women variously by their titles, their first names, their last names, and even their types (“this old woman” and “the woman”). As a result I have no idea who is saying what or why it matters, and I more or less skimmed over the scene without absorbing a single thing.
In almost any other situation, I would have put the book down.
But because of what had passed in the previous two chapters, and what was promised to come, I couldn’t do it. A Princess of Roumania is an unapologetic alternate world fantasy that opens in present-day, mundane Western Massachussets on a bitter teenage orphan girl (read Dorothy) and an alienated young man with only one hand (impossible for me not to read as me) meeting at an abandoned house in the woods to talk about the events of their past that have left them broken. And then we get sucked into Roumania–an alternate earth part of which includes a frontier Western Mass of wooly mammoths, mercenaries and shapeshifters. And I am hooked.
A Princess of Roumania is half surreal, Jack London-esque survival story, half court intrigue in an alternate Eastern Europe that reads like Russian epic. And the whole thing is told in omniscient POV–not just moving from head to head, giving us the thoughts and feelings of practically every character we encounter, but at times pausing to hover ambiguously between heads, commenting on truths of the human condition elucidated only by an understanding of both the character we’ve just left and the one we are about to enter.
A lot of people can’t stand omniscient POV. At Odyssey the year I attended, there was much debate as to whether Dune, as a result of its omniscient head-hopping style, was a poorly written piece of crap. I argued no–that Dune is in fact a masterpiece of world-building, intrigue and ideas. Many disagreed.
I have to admit it’s a difficult thing to do well. The very notion of trying to write a story in this way strikes me as absurdly ambitious, and at the moment, I doubt I will ever attempt it. But doing it well (as Paul Park does, despite the odd fluke of Chapter 3, which I’ll allow is probably a matter of poor editing more than poor writing) can catapult a story onto an entirely different scale of character depth and scope.
Park’s villain, the Baroness Ceausescu, may be the most complex villain I’ve ever seen in a work of fantasy. In fact I sympathize with her to the degree that (were it not for the presence of Miranda, Park’s Dorothy figure) she might well have been the protagonist. She makes me think of the protagonists of Dostoevsky. In the opening chapters, in one of his rare, startling moments as nebulous omniscient narrator, Park lays out the premise of her character as follows:
It is a myth that evil people feel pleasure at the pain of others.
The baroness is, inarguably, evil—and yet we can justify her almost every action from the perspective of someone who is merely human. And this same phenomenon occurs every time we’re tempted merely to hate or dislike a character for their actions. Park brings us into their heads and shows us how to understand them.
Reading A Princess of Roumania has been a daunting task. Yet at every turn, I find something eye-opening, some use of omniscience that elucidates the eerie strangeness of Roumania in unexpected ways—for example, experiencing the primeval woods of an alternate New England through the senses of a girl-turned-golden retriever joyfully exploring every new scent. It’s a lesson in all the things only fiction can do.