Monday, June 18, 2007

Paul Park "A Princess of Roumania": FACT reading group discussion and my review

On April 17th, 2007 the FACT reading group discussed "A Princess of Roumania" by Paul Park. 11 people attended the discussion. Everybody had started the book. Only 5 or so finished the book, but the rest were going to finish it. Only 2 people read Paul Park before. One of them had also read two sequels of "Princess Of Roumania", and his comments gave an impression that "Princess Of Roumania" is a lot more enjoyable in retrospective, once you know what happened next, as the events in the sequels explain a lot of things in the first book. Eventually others had to restrain him from revealing plot snippets from the sequels, although he was doing it only to be helpful. :-)

Everybody liked it for different reasons



... most of which I couldn't relate to. :-)

Majority of the group liked this book. Some of the group members derive a lot of their enjoyment of a book from its literary and political references. One of those people found a treasure trove of such references in "Princess of Roumania". He thought the magic (which was based, he said, on Gypsy tradition), was interesting, and the political situation in the alternative Europe, where Roumania is a major power, fascinating. He was also intrigued by the gnostic undercurrents in Paul Park's writing and an unusual version of Christianity that exists in the parallel world of the novel -- it's not the Christianity we know.

In contrast, another reader thought the alternative Roumania was not so fascinating as to intrigue somebody who knew very little about the actual Romania. "I don't know much about Romania," said a reader. "An alternate history of a country I don't know much about doesn't do much for me. [The author] didn't pull it off for me. He didn't make me interested in Romania."

People gave Paul Park credit for attempting an ambitious story ("He's trying to marry a children's adventure story that kind of reminds me of Philip Pulman, with alternate history stuff, and I think it's an interesting idea," said a reader) and breaking fantasy stereotypes. "This is not Tolkien," said another reader who praised "Princess of Roumania" as one of the best fantasy works he has ever read. "Tolkien created the stereotypes we follow, and I wish more people broke out of sterotypes like Paul Park has. The thing that fascinates me about this story is that it is talking about what happens to real life people when they do their best given the information they have. And the world is out there with a response that's based on a different set of information." Indeed, the plans of some of the main characters are continuously stymied, since they act on incomplete information.

The Baroness was the most interesting character



One thing most people could agree on is that they "liked" the Baroness. Not that they found her a likeable character in a conventional sense (she certainly is not), but most people found her interesting to read about. On one hand she is a sociopath who kills casually, almost spontaneously, when her plans are thwarted, and considers herself to be above the rest of the humanity; on the other hand, she is miserable and full of self-hatred. Readers thought her conflicted psyche made her human.

Criticisms



There were some criticisms voiced by one or more members of the group:

The pacing is pedestrian, most characters not very engaging





  • Readers felt distanced from the characters. Several people mentioned they did not find a character to root for or to become attached to.


  • The sudden shifts of viewpoint were confusing. Sometimes it wasn't immediately obvious which character is the viewpoint character in a particular chapter.


  • One person did not think the characters' behavior was credible. "One of my issues with either fantasy or SF where someone is taken from our world, and maybe I'm just way too egocentric, but it would take me pages and pages of my own mental dialogues to say, why me? I didn't feel they were incredulous enough in that situation." he said.


  • One person thought the beginning of the story, where we meet Miranda's parents, held false promise, as it was shaping up to be a story about kids who live in a college town and whose parents work at the university. He was disappointed to find out it wasn't the case. "I thought their parents were very interesting characters, only they don't appear further in the book."


  • Several readers remarked that the story was rather slow. "His pacing is very pedestrian," said one reader. "Very slow. He just doesn't get on with it, even three quarters into the book. His writing style is not bad, and his prose is fairly good, but his storytelling is, for me, pedestrian. It's very hard to keep going because he doesn't progress anything."




I agree with the last criticism. I found this book incredibly sloooow and tedious.

The Miranda storyline wasn't going anywhere



There is hardly any fantastic element in Miranda's storyline, apart from her initial disappearance from our world into the parallel universe. Park spends hundreds of pages recounting Miranda's and her friends' journey through the woods, and their encounters with various interested parties: first good guys, then bad guys, then good-but-not-so-good guys, then bad-but-maybe-not-so-bad guys, etc. Miranda's wanderings seem pointless and tedious.

It is understandable that Miranda doesn't know who to trust in this situation, and I've read many stories where the protagonist doesn't know who the good guys or the bad guys are, and in some stories a major part of intrigue is figuring it out; but in this book it is not so. The mystery of who is on her side and who is against her does not move the plot forward; on the contrary, it causes the plot to stall.

Readers puzzled by glowing blurbs



It doesn't help that the blurbs in the book compare Paul Park to famous contributors to the alternate history genre, such as Roger Zelazny. The comparison was found unwarranted by some people. "As far as alternate history I will admit that there were some really good books I read, [Charles Stross'] "Family Trade" and [Roger Zelazny's] "Nine Princes of Amber", and the first chapter of "Nine Princes of Amber" had more cool things than this book. Certainly more action than this whole book. Paul Park is a good writer, but he's not at Zelazny's level yet. He's being compared to Zelazny, but maybe it's because if you write a robot novel, you would be compared to Asimov," said another reader.

Other people, while agreeing the pace was kind of slow, thought it may have been adequate for the kind of story Paul Park is telling. "Nothing he writes is action adventure. It's intellectual puzzles," said a reader. Despite the slowness, most people found the story good enough to enjoy, and many were planning to read the sequels.

Still, some people felt the novel did not quite live up to the expectations raised by the glowing blurbs. For the second time in the recent history of the reading group, the discussion of a book ended up with a meta-discussion of why that book was so highly praised by famous writers (in this case, Ursula Le Guin or John Crowley). Some people also didn't think "Princess of Roumania" was outstanding enough to be nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 2006. A reader suggested this book may have been nominated for the following reasons: "It's trying to be literary, it has downtrodden people in Eastern Europe, and it was written by a college professor."

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