Passion Play, a fantasy debut novel by Beth Bernobich, won Best Epic Fantasy in the 2010 RT Reviewer’s Choice Awards and was long-listed for both the 2010 Tiptree Award and the 2011 British Fantasy Awards. It is the first book in the Erythandra series and will be followed by The Queen’s Hunt (in 2012), Allegiance, and The Edge of the Empire. “River of Souls,” a short story set in the same world, is available for free on Tor.com.
As the main plot doesn’t really start until almost 100 pages in, the following plot description loosely sums up those pages. If you are worried that will spoil too much, you can skip it by going to the horizontal line and reading from there on.
When she is nearly sixteen years old, Therez (aka Ilse) Zhalina’s father announces to her that he has arranged her marriage to Maester Theodr Galt. (Fairly early in the book Therez becomes known as “Ilse” so I’ll refer to her by this name from now on just to avoid confusion.) Ilse does her best to convince her father not to force her to marry this man, due to the fact that she found him creepy and has heard some suspicious rumors about the recent dissolution of his betrothal to another woman. As this union would greatly profit his business, the Zhalina patriarch refuses to listen to his daughter’s wishes. Fearing what her life with this man will be like, Ilse runs away, hoping to find a job as a secretary – and her freedom.
Instead, Ilse finds harsh treatment at the hands of the caravan master, who discovers her secret and will return her to her father unless she will be a prostitute for the men in the caravan. Terrified of facing the rest of her life married to Theodr Galt, Therez agrees and pleases more than one man a night. Eventually, she also escapes this and finds her way to Raul Kosenmark, owner of a pleasure house that is much more than it seems, and becomes involved in secrets and intrigue.
Overall, I thought Passion Play was flawed but promising, and it did enough well that I’m excited about the potential for the series. After all, this is a debut novel so I’m expecting the following novels to improve, and it also felt like it was setting up the rest of the series. Also, I read the aforementioned related short story “River of Souls” and thought it was very well done, so I’m hoping that with more practice writing novels the author will be able to construct a longer story with the same skill. In Passion Play, I felt that the writing, particularly the dialogue, and the main character were great and kept it very readable, but the plotting and structure could have been better.
Before I discuss what worked and didn’t in more detail, I do want to give a word of warning that some people may have some difficulty with some of the content and suggest you read this post if you want more of the details of how some people will react to it. Personally, I found this particular aspect to be more subdued than I had been expecting, but I’m also not terribly easily upset or offended by a book’s contents. If you want it in brief (er, briefer than the post linked to, at least) along with how much it influences the rest of the book, read the spoiler below:
What I really liked about Passion Play was the dialogue, the main character, and the premise of retaining some memories from past lives. The prose was fairly simple but effective in that it flowed without the need to really stop and think about it. A lot of the story was told through dialogue and Ilse’s internal thoughts, and the fact that I found it so absorbing in spite of that says a lot for how well-written some of the discussions were. In fact, although the latter half of the book was heavily focused on politics, most of this was behind the scenes. A lot of the intrigue was through letters and conversations about these letters and political situations without very much action or firsthand influence in events. Many of the characters introduced as being important to the overall scheme never actually make an appearance, which can make it a little difficult to keep track of some of the key players who will most likely be more important later in the series. Yet, I still found these parts interesting to read about, and that may also be due to the fact that I really liked Ilse and wanted her to succeed.
From the beginning, Ilse is very easy to sympathize with since she’s essentially being forced into a marriage she doesn’t want. While her decision to run away may seem rather ill-advised, I also didn’t think it seemed completely unreasonable for a girl in her position. It’s not like she had anywhere else to go since no one in her family was willing to stand up to her father, and she was quite obviously terrified of the man her father picked for her to marry (and he didn’t pick the man because he thought it would be good for Ilse but because he thought it would be good for his financial situation). Plus I don’t think she wanted to end up like her mother, who always had to tiptoe around her father. Perhaps she could have at least tried a little longer to convince the rest of her family to listen to her, but it really did sound like a losing battle from the start from what was said of her father and family life. So she saw her options as either submitting to her father’s will or taking matters into her own hands by leaving. Leaving home lead to some really bad situations, but in the end she got what she wanted so although it seemed like she understood she’d been a bit naive, I don’t think she had any real regrets either.
In addition to being sympathetic, Ilse is just likable – she’s clever and a fast learner who enjoys reading. At times, she may seem a bit too intelligent and mature for her age, but there’s also a possible explanation for this. In this book, people remember bits and pieces of their past lives through dreams, and Ilse has memories of being a scholar. Who one was in a previous life can influence who one is in the present, so it seems reasonable that Ilse could have greater wisdom than a typical teenager due to this. I really love this concept and hope to see it explored further in the next books.
Other than Ilse, I didn’t find any of the other characters particularly stood out as memorable. There was a romance between her and one other character that seemed rather sudden in spite of the fact that it did develop over time. This may have been because there were a couple of small hints that they liked each other, then it was suddenly revealed, and from that point forward (the last 50 pages or so) it was rather heavily focused on this romantic relationship. That was one issue I had with the novel – that it didn’t feel like the plot threads were tied together, moving forward naturally toward a conclusion. It felt like it was split into parts: Ilse’s beginning that lead to the rest of the story, her rise to learning about the political schemes, and then her romance. All of the story really felt like a prologue for things to come since there was not a lot of action, and some may find it rather slow moving if they don’t enjoy the dialogue or care about Ilse since there was not a lot of plot progression in this novel. It largely feels like it is setting up the rest of the series.
Passion Play was not a perfect book, and it did seem to be setting the stage for future volumes in the series since there was not a lot of forward momentum in the story. There was a lot of discussion about politics without a lot of action or even time spent with a lot of the characters discussed (who will most likely become more prominent later). However, since I really liked the main character and feel the parts that were introduced in this book has a lot of potential to become an interesting series, I am very likely to pick up the next book (although I wouldn’t pay for the hardcover). This book was never a struggle to get through once it got past the time in the caravan (which I found somewhat dull) and was in fact very readable in general. Those reasons, combined with the fact that this is a debut novel and I was rather impressed by the short story set in the same world, actually has me rather eager to see if this promising first installment sets a solid foundation for the next book.
My Rating: 6/10
Where I got my reading copy: Picked up an ARC at an author signing at Book Expo America last year.