I've just finished reading Paul Park's A Princess of Roumania (warning: mild spoilers ahead). The book deserves to become a modern classic; it's as good and as serious as the first two books of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials." I've been an admirer of Park's novels for a long time. His previous books are wonderful, but there's a clear progression from the gorgeous, baroque, but slightly undisciplined prose of his first book, Soldiers of Paradise and its somewhat inferior sequels, through Celestis to Three Marys which is written in language as plain and lovely as a stone. "A Princess of Roumania" is better again - strange images rendered more striking by the very matter-of-factness with which they are described. His first novel for young adults, it takes a standard plot - a girl and her companions catapulted into a strange new world of magic and enchantment - and does unexpected things with it. There are many novels in which the characters come to realize that they are inhabiting a fictional world, in which "the laws of the universe are the laws of genre." Much of the power of A Princess comes from its refusal of the cosiness that this all too often implies.
I've a theory, which I suspect is hardly original to me, that the magic in really good children's fantasy draws its resonance from a child's perception of what it must be like to be grown up. When you're a child or a pre-adolescent, the adult world seems an attractive and terrifying place. Adults have power, but are driven by forces and desires that a child can only dimly understand; wild magic. Thus, for example, when Susan rides with the daughters of the moon and the Wild Hunt in Alan Garner's The Moon of Gomrath, she's glimpsing for a moment what it will be like to be a woman. In contrast, the magic in mediocre children's fantasy is all too often domesticated, rationalized, and stripped of its real force. A Princess of Roumania seems to me to be an oblique rejoinder to the kind of children's fantasy in which magic is under control, in which the child goes home. There's no returning for Miranda Popescu; her entire world (our world) turns out to be an elaborate fiction, a shelter from reality that quite literally disappears in a puff of smoke. She and her friends are propelled, only half grown-up into the world of adulthood, of complex responsibilities and obligations. A world where magic exists, but isn't really understood, where adults lay complicated plans, but don't know what they're doing most of the time. In most fantasy, the hero or heroine is fulfilling a plot, a prophecy, a pre-ordained destiny - at the pivotal moment in A Princess, Miranda refuses the path that has been laid out for her, and the power of adults to decide what to do with her life, instead deciding herself. All this, and the Baroness Nicola Ceausescu, perhaps the most wonderfully described, and sympathetic villainess that I've ever seen in a YA book. I can't say more than to reiterate that the book is a delight.