No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Tourmaline -- Paul Park

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in July 2006.

The Tourmaline follows A Princess of Roumania, and will make no sense to anyone who hasn't read the previous instalment. Even those who have read it might flounder: this is the second half of a book intended as a single volume, split at what initially seems an awkward point. The end of Princess had great dramatic impact, but the logical division seems to be about a hundred pages into The Tourmaline, when Peter and Andromeda -- last seen on a river-bank in upstate New York -- undergo a transformation, a translation, as radical as Miranda's own.

In The Tourmaline, the focus changes from the wilderness of North America to Europe; to Roumania, a country torn by war and looking to the White Tyger for salvation. Miranda, reeling from an abrupt arrival, doesn't know what's expected of her, or even what she's capable of doing. And perhaps everything she's been told is false, because there is already a White Tyger in Roumania; Nicola Ceasescu has claimed her country's love and loyalty, and is determined to prevail by any means necessary, magical or mundane.

Peter, still travelling with Andromeda (who's also been transformed by her experiences) is no longer the rather diffident teenager of A Princess of Roumania. With the help of a mysterious African woman -- she seems a child, but there is nothing childish about her -- Peter's found his way to Europe, and he and Andromeda are making a living, searching for Miranda, searching in fact for some meaning to this extended stay in a world that's not their own.

Park draws back, showing us a broader world: a world in which Africa is technologically superior to Europe; in which barrels of a secret substance, labelled 'nepenthe', come north by train to aid the former Baroness Ceasescu in her covert war against the Germans; in which King Jesus crucified the generals before the walls of Rome, and remnants of an older race of humans roam the forests of Roumania. Magic works, here, though it's a strict and rigid discipline as full of theories and standard texts as any science. Nicola Ceasescu's methodology, her scientific magic, gives new dimension to the pre-Copernican cosmology of the first novel: she sets a spell that's also a trap, asking for help, and it seems that she is answered.

Yet all the world's a backdrop for Miranda's story, and the stories of Peter and of Andromeda. None of the three is especially likeable, as a character: that's one way in which Park subverts the tropes of genre fantasy. He's iconoclastic, too: the Magic Jewel? A fake. The letter from Miranda's dead aunt Aegypta? Lost before it's read. There's no logic to the Subterranean Portal (the weakest element of the novel, but I trust the author to explain it when the time's right). And the white tyger, that rare and special creature of the Roumanian countryside, turns out not to be a fearsome legend: it's no larger than a lynx.

Many readers seemed to misunderstand A Princess of Roumania, reading it as a YA novel (which it isn't, though it concerns Miranda's coming-of-age) or a historical fantasy (it's almost certainly set in the present day, albeit in another universe). I suspect this novel, with its broader view of the world in which Miranda, Peter and Andromeda find themselves, will confuse the issue further. Paul Park's clear, precise prose doesn't prevent him from clouding the issue with maddening scene-changes just as some vital crux is reached; with occasionally-clumsy obfuscations ("the soldier talked for a long time," without reporting what was said) and a presentation of this new world as is, unexplained. Something's hidden in plain sight, here, and I'm very much looking forward to finding out what it might be.

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