Fantastic Reviews - Fantasy Book Review
The Tourmaline cover The Tourmaline by Paul Park

Tor hardcover - Copyright 2006
350 pages
Cover art by John Jude Palencar

Book reviewed October 2006

Rating: 8/10  (Highly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes
Interview with author Paul Park

          You know how a good book can be an escape from the troubles of the real world?  In Paul Park's excellent new Roumania fantasy series, Miranda Popescu discovers that she has already escaped into a book.  What she thought was the real world is actually a make-believe world created by her aunt to keep Miranda safe from her family's enemies in another, more substantial world.  This means all the rest of us are mere fictional characters, for what Miranda mistakenly believed was the real world is the same world you and I know.

The Tourmaline is the second volume of the Roumania series and it does not stand alone - you need to start with A Princess of Roumania - yet I am glad I waited for The Tourmaline rather than attempting to review the first book.  A Princess of Roumania is interesting and beautifully written but I found myself slow to develop attachments to the main characters, and I finished it unsure of how great a fan of the entire series I would eventually be.  The Tourmaline removes any doubt.  This is a terrific series, built around fantasy elements that are familiar but which Park reworks in original and dynamic ways that should appeal to any fantasy reader.  At the same time, the Roumania books are accessible to mainstream readers, because Park has an understated way of writing that makes his ghosts, conjurers, shape-shifters, and other bizarre story elements seem perfectly natural.

The heroine of the Roumania series is Miranda, a resourceful but insecure teenager, who is not at all comfortable with her new-found destiny as an important princess in another universe.  In A Princess of Roumania she travels from our world to the alternate North America of her native world with her two best friends, awkward Peter and outgoing Andromeda, but she would clearly be happier back in the Massachusetts she knows.  In The Tourmaline, Miranda arrives in Roumania and begins to accept that she has a crucial role to play as a potential heir to the nation's throne.  Miranda's willingness to embrace her destiny makes it easier for the reader to feel involved and to care about what happens to this mythical place.

As the story progresses, we learn that it is more than coincidence that Peter and Andromeda were Miranda's companions for her journey.  The trip to the world of Roumania soon changes Miranda's friends in startling, and somewhat unwelcome, ways.  It is a testament to Park's considerable talents that I found myself feeling more, not less, connected to these characters as they undergo their strange transformations.  [Addendum: After I wrote this, I had the chance to conduct an interview with Paul Park, and he had some fascinating things to say about why he chose such an unorthodox method of character development.]

The actions of Miranda and her friends will decide the fate of Roumania, an important European power.  The Europe of this world is at a circa 1900 level of technology, though Park hints that other parts of the world are more advanced and are already developing nuclear weaponry.  Roumania is a focal point of Europe's power struggles in part because it is the home of a peculiar type of folk magic, which makes it possible to conjure various types of simulacra and illusions and even to contact the dead.  There are many other distinctions between this Roumania and our world's Romania, including the intriguing suggestion that Miranda may be the descendent of Jesus Christ, who in this world escaped crucifixion, married Mary Magdalene, and traveled with her to Roumania.  Park has fun fleshing out Roumania's backstory, but his intent seems more to add a flavor of strangeness to this world than to develop any thorough alternate history.

By the beginning of The Tourmaline Germany has occupied Roumania, yet only one of Germany's leaders, the dangerous Elector of Ratisbon, appreciates the significance of Roumanian magic.  Miranda finds allies who hope that she is the "white tyger" of legend who will lead Roumania to liberation; however, the powerful and malicious Baroness Nicola Ceausescu, who is an accomplished actress, intends to play that role herself.  (Park never explains the connection between Nicola Ceausescu and our world's Nicolae Ceausescu, although at one point the Baroness speculates that Miranda's aunt invented the brutal dictator of our world just to piss her off.)  The enchanted "tourmaline" jewel, taken from the skull of the powerful magician Johannes Kepler, is central to Ceausescu's plans.  Resolution of the struggle for control of Roumania awaits the final two books of the series, The White Tyger and The Hidden World.

Park builds significant dramatic tension around the Baroness Ceausescu and the Elector of Ratisbon by defying the fantasy convention that the villain is extremely powerful while the hero must overcome the odds.  The Baroness and the Elector have formidable abilities, yet Park stacks the deck just as badly against them as against Miranda.

The Baroness Ceausescu is a particularly compelling character.  She is prepared to do despicable things to further her ambitions, yet we see through her viewpoint that she feels genuine regret afterwards.  To add further interest, Park drops hints that the Baroness is the latest of his many semiautobiographical characters; for instance, she is struggling to write an opera called The White Tyger, which is the title of Park's next book.  The confrontation between the Baroness and the Elector of Ratisbon early in The Tourmaline is a wonderfully memorable scene, and the moment the Baroness believes she has the upper hand is a great example of her sincere empathy for her victims:

And for the elector too she felt such pity, while at the same time she pulled the cord so tight it cut into his wrists.  When she recalled the contemptuous and public way he had humiliated her in the pastry shop, she pitied him.  How terrible to be at the mercy of someone you have wronged! Particularly someone who could not forgive you.  Because forgiveness was the opposite of sympathy.
          The Tourmaline fulfills all the promise of A Princess of Roumania.  Now with a better look at where Park is taking the story, I can recommend the Roumania series highly and without reservation.
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Paul Park interview

Other Paul Park book reviews on Fantastic Reviews:
A Princess of Roumania

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Our book club's web pages for Paul Park books (includes Park bibliography):
A Princess of Roumania

Links to other Paul Park reviews, articles, and interviews:
Paul Park - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The SF Site: A Conversation With Paul Park - September 2002
Paul Park interviewed - infinity plus non-fiction - October 2000
Steven Silver's Reviews: Paul Park: A Princess of Roumania
The Tourmaline | Book Reviews | SCI FI Weekly
The SF Site Featured Review: The Tourmaline
Locus Online: Paul Park interview excerpts

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

This page was last updated - 11 January 2009