Book Review: 'Princess in the Opal Mask'

It seems to be Mark Twain season in Orange County. This month, Val Kilmer brought his one-man show "Citizen Twain" to the Laguna Playhouse, and a few weeks before that came the release of Jenny Lundquist's novel "The Princess in the Opal Mask," which reads like a female take on Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper." Add a double "s" to the end of "Prince," and there you are.

In Twain's story, a young prince and a beggar who closely resemble each other trade places, with the former learning about London squalor while the latter struggles to adapt to royal life.

Lundquist, a Huntington Beach native, provides a similar dual plot, as her two protagonists — a meek princess named Wilha, whose family forces her to wear a mask in public, and a headstrong girl named Elara, who toils for an adoptive family — find themselves repeatedly swapping identities.

How that exchange happens, I'll avoid ruining with spoilers. Suffice to say that in the early passages, Lundquist places us in the mythical kingdom of Galandria, whose neighboring state, Kyrenica, broke off from it a century ago and remains a looming presence. Over the former country presides the royal family, which parades out Wilha — known to her subjects as the Masked Princess — for public appearances but keeps her face, for undeclared reasons, a secret.

In its first third, "The Princess in the Opal Mask" stays well within the confines of the fairy tale genre. It's hardly surprising, for example, that Wilha's family hopes to marry her off to a prince who doesn't interest her or that Elara's caretakers treat her more like an indentured servant than a relation. In addition to Twain's story, you may find yourself drawing parallels to "Snow White" and any number of Disney opuses in which wealth and poverty collide.

But then, those old folk tales survived for generations around the campfire before they wound up on the page or screen — and likewise, a novel like Lundquist's depends less on originality than on the skill of its storyteller. In this case, the teller is a good one, and by the time the protagonists meet and form an alliance amid mounting intrigue, "The Princess in the Opal Mask" becomes an invigorating read.

Much of the fun derives from the intricacy of Lundquist's plot. With the chapters alternating narration by the two leads, scenes depend on small gestures, shifting motivations and quick reversals of strategy; characters' choices are constantly limited by what can't be said or done. It's the kind of material that can be a door-slamming farce if played for laughs, but provides insights into human nature when taken seriously.

Reading "The Princess in the Opal Mask," it dawned on me that many young-adult stories deal with the concept of identity: From Harry Potter to Luke Skywalker, many heroes discover that their pasts and families have been carefully crafted illusions.

Maybe there's something about that age that invites pondering whether our circumstances are the ones we deserve. When Lundquist's heroines tackle that question at the novel's end, their solution is both daring and refreshing — proof that it's the mind, not the mask, that truly dictates fate.

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