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The Latest: 'Mask' holds secrets; shady 'Bungalows'

November 29, 2013
  • "The Princess in the Oval Mask."
"The Princess in the Oval Mask."

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The Princess in the Opal Mask

By Jenny Lundquist

Running Press Teens; 350 pages

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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.

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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.

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