CLASSIFICATION: Passion Play is a novel that blends together romance, classic fantasy tropes and political intrigue. Some comparisons have been made to Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, and while there are a few similarities, Passion Play is not nearly as grandiose, sensual, or elegantly written. Instead, the book reminded me at times of Robin Hobb’s early stuff, some Kate Elliott, and C.E. Murphy’s Inheritors’ Cycle, although Beth Bernobich has her own style. From an age-suitable standpoint, Passion Play contains profanity, graphic violence and some sexual content, but otherwise falls in PG-13 territory for most of the novel.
FORMAT/INFO: Passion Play is 368 pages long divided over 28 numbered chapters. Narration is in the third person exclusively via Therez Zhalina, who changes her name to Ilse Zhalina about 70 pages in. Passion Play comes to an acceptable stopping point, but is the first volume in the Erythandra series which is expected to have at least three more sequels: Queen’s Hunt, Allegiance and The Edge of the Empire. October 12, 2010 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Passion Play via Tor.
ANALYSIS: Passion Play is a novel I’ve been anticipating for a while now thanks to Beth Bernobich’s short fiction (A Handful of Pearls & Other Stories, Ars Memoriae), which has been highly praised by Fantasy Book Critic’s Liviu Suciu. Add to that a number of glowing blurbs provided by the likes of Anne McCaffrey and Patricia Briggs, not to mention comparisons to one of my favorite authors of all time in Jacqueline Carey, and I couldn’t have been more excited for Beth Bernobich’s debut.
Starting out, Passion Play is a little slow, but I was immediately charmed by the author’s writing style which is confident, graceful, and eloquent. The real draw for me though was the book’s protagonist, 16-year-old Therez/Ilse Zhalina, in particular her journey from merchant’s daughter to runaway, to slave, to kitchen servant, to assistant secretary. Therez’s coming-of-age tale is an overly familiar one, full of classic fantasy tropes like bullies and adjusting to a different social rank, but because I cared about the character so much, I was completely entranced by the adversity Therez/Ilse had to overcome.
Unfortunately, Passion Play is unable to maintain this level of enchantment for the entire book. By the time Therez/Ilse becomes Lord Raul Kosenmark’s full-time secretary, I was starting to notice a disturbing lack of substance in the novel, which was confirmed when I finished reading Passion Play. Even worse, upon reflection I realized this issue was present from the very beginning, when Therez first made her decision to run away from home instead of getting married. A decision that, looking back, now seems rather impulsive and foolish based on what little reasoning readers are given. In fact, I strongly believe Therez’s decision to run away and the sacrifices she makes in order to avoid returning home would have been much more believable and easier to understand if Beth Bernobich had spent more time detailing Therez’s home life at the beginning of the novel.
Alas, Therez’s life-changing choices are only the tip of the iceberg. The novel’s lack of substance also extends to Therez’s superficial transformation into Ilse — it would have been more compelling if Therez had changed more than just her name; characters that are largely two-dimensional apart from Therez/Ilse and Lord Kosenmark; shallow world building; and a plot that features an unconvincing love story, confusing politics, and ineffective intrigue.
What makes this all so frustrating is that Passion Play could have been great. Therez/Ilse and Lord Kosenmark are, for the most part, strong and interesting central characters; the plot — involving an undying king, magical jewels, two kingdoms on the brink of war, a shadow court, and much more — has all the necessary ingredients for powerful drama, crafty deception and exciting adventure; the secondary world that Beth Bernobich has imagined is bursting with untapped potential if the tantalizing glimpses of life dreams (dreams of past lives), Lir’s jewels, and the magical realm Anderswar are anything to go by.
The problem with Passion Play is in the details, or more precisely, the lack thereof. In other words, at 368 pages, Passion Play is not nearly long enough to provide the kind of details necessary for all that is happening in the book, especially when you consider that two years of Therez’s life is covered. As a result, so much of the novel just feels shortchanged, particularly the supporting characters, the magic system, and the world building.
At this point, I can’t help but compare Passion Play to Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel novels. More specifically, I can’t help but wonder how much better the novel would have been if it had been written by someone like Jacqueline Carey. An unfair conjecture perhaps, but I strongly believe Passion Play would have been significantly better if more time and detail had been spent on fleshing out the characters, the story and the world of Erythandra.
Fortunately, Passion Play is only a debut novel — and just the first in a series — so Beth Bernobich has plenty of time to correct the problems that plagued her debut, and live up to the immense potential and talent that she possesses…
I have to confess, when Beth Bernobich’s new book Passion Play arrived in my mailbox (unsolicited), I was kinda wondering who the publisher thought they were sending their book to. The title, combined with the hot looking young woman in a dress that reveals the top of a shapely and (I assumed) heaving bosom, made me think someone in the PR department had gotten their signals crossed and somewhere, some romance reviewer was looking at a book with a dragon on the cover and thinking “huh?” But I didn’t let the cover (or the fact that “passion” appears twice on the cover) deter me, and what I discovered was a very solid read, one with flaws but which did leave me by the end interested in picking up the sequel.
The young girl on the cover is Therez Zhalina (our third-person narrator for the book’s entirety), who in relatively quick fashion: learns she is to be abruptly married off by her merchant father to another (richer) merchant who has a reputation for cruelty, runs away via a caravan and is brutally used (not detailed but graphically referenced) by the caravan leader as payment for not being returned home, eventually finds herself a place in a pleasure house run by Lord Kosenmark, who has been recently removed from the King’s Court by the new king although Therez (or Ilse as she is known now) learns Kosenmark has not given up the dangerous game of politics.
Passion Play lacks many of the standard elements common in fantasy. Magic exists in this world, but is rarely seen or rarely makes a large impact in day to day life. We see no fantastical creatures. There are villains, one of whom employs magic, but no standard dark lord or necromancer type, no sorcerous attacks, etc. There’s no quest (though we’re clearly set up for one in book two). In fact, save for a “big picture” plot line involving possible war with another kingdom whose king is seeking three powerful magical jewels, and a few scenes of magical healing, there really is little “fantastic” about it. It’s more akin to a historical novel, I’d say, with some romance and fantasy elements. Whether that is good or bad will depend on just how much fantasy you want from your fantasy.
Therez/Ilse (I’ll refer to her simply as Ilse from now on — the name she uses through most of the novel) is a strong, likable character: independent, intelligent, clever, sensitive, and I enjoyed the way she slowly slid into first the household life of Kosenmark’s home and then into the political intrigue he’s involved himself in. Kosenmark is another strong character with lots of shades of complexity to him; Ilse (and the reader) is never quite sure of what to make of him. The side characters aren’t quite as strong. While they’re mostly likable when they’re supposed to be (or not, as the character calls for), they do feel a bit like character types rather than full people: the gruff but warm older taskmaster kind of mentor; the taciturn, gruff, but warm weaponmaster; the loud, gruff, but warm kitchen matron, etc.
The plot is a slow unfolding; though events and action pick up at the end this is mostly a story of character/relationship development and political gamesmanship. I enjoyed the slow pace myself, and found the prose to be fluid and naturally inviting so that, while slow in terms of action, the reading itself never felt such. I can see, however, where other readers, perhaps even most other readers, might be frustrated by the pace. One of the plot’s aspects I enjoyed was how the past wasn’t simply forgotten; there are repercussions from events that play out more than a time or two but rather become part of one’s life or nature and Bernobich does a nice job showing this through both her characters.
What made Passion Play a “solid” read for me rather than a “strong” one was that while I never bogged down and was always interested in the story and characters, I also never felt fully involved or immersed. There is a curious sort of distance to events and character (if that sounds vague it is and I apologize for it). Part of it maybe that so many of the driving overarching plots are literally removed. The king with whom Kosenmark has issues is often referenced but never seen, and the mage set up as the adversary is seen only once, briefly, though we get reports of his acts. The magical jewels, which may play a big role or may just be a MacGuffin, are never seen or even really detailed. Fights between Kosenmark’s lover and his lover’s father are reported but unwitnessed, and on it goes. Part of the distance too comes from a lack of sharp or full detail: the secondary characters who feel a bit too much like character types, magic that is present but never really explained in terms of how it works or its societal impact, an impending war that feels wholly abstract, and so on. Part of it is some abrupt shifts, beginning with Ilse’s first decision to run away, which felt forced more by plot than set up as a natural outgrowth of character and situation, and continuing with the ease with which she becomes entrusted with some pretty dangerous knowledge.
As I said, I remained captivated by the character and story, reading the book in just a handful of sittings and never feeling bored or impatient with it. The end is unresolved and I’m certainly desirous of finding out what happens to both Ilse and Kosenmark. The writing was graceful and inviting throughout. It just fell a little short of what could have been. Passion Play is a first book that feels very much on the edge of tipping over into excellent reading, even if it isn’t there yet. Recommended.
I enjoy court-intrigue plots and, having read some good books in that vein lately, I was craving more. Then I remembered Passion Play languishing on my bookshelf. I’ve had it for over a year, and tried to read it once before but couldn’t get into it. Now seemed like a good time to give it another shot.
Passion Play tells the story of Therez Zhalina, a merchant’s daughter who runs away from home when her father promises her in marriage to the much older Theodr Galt, in whom Therez sees alarming hints of cruelty. She changes her name to Ilse and intends to travel to the capital city, Duenne, to seek clerical work. Instead she is brutalized by the men of the caravan she’s traveling with, escapes, and ends up in the city of Tiralien where she is taken in by Raul Kosenmark, a nobleman who runs a pleasure house and is secretly involved in political intrigue. Ilse starts out as a kitchen maid in the pleasure house but is promoted to a secretarial position and begins to help Kosenmark in his political schemes.
Passion Play has a lot going for it. Beth Bernobich’s prose is rich and evocative. I liked Ilse; she’s smart, hard-working, compassionate, and determined to survive despite some terrible things that happen to her. The romantic plotline is interesting as well. Bernobich gives Ilse an unconventional love interest and unfolds this part of the story in a believably gradual way, given the issues that haunt both characters. For all these reasons, I wanted to like the book, but other factors kept getting in the way.
The intrigue is often confusing. Bernobich describes the political situation more in suggestions and implications than in actual exposition. This can work in a novel set in our real world; the reader can fill in the blanks with common knowledge and is probably glad to be spared an infodump about things he or she already knows. But Passion Play is set in an invented world. It clearly has some influences from the real world, but if it’s based on true events, I certainly couldn’t identify them. We can’t connect the dots with pre-existing knowledge because we didn’t learn the history of Veraene and Karovi in history class. I actually understood it a lot better after visiting Bernobich’s website and reading the information provided there. Before that, I was thinking, “My kingdom for an infodump!” In addition to being confusing, the intrigue is also too distant from the reader, most of it happening offscreen.
The pleasure house setting turns out to be mostly irrelevant. For all the bearing that the courtesans have on the plot (little to none), this element could have been removed and Kosenmark’s house simply a luxurious town house without changing anything essential in the story. The pleasure house makes Passion Play feel more derivative than it really is and invites comparison to Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, a comparison by which Passion Play suffers. The style and tone are completely different from Carey’s, and I don’t think anyone would even think of comparing the two if it weren’t for that pleasure house.
Finally, both the beginning and ending events seem forced. The initial event — Ilse’s running away from home — is more understandable. Ilse’s decision to flee is hasty and not developed as well as it could be, but I can see how she read between the lines and concluded Galt was an abuser. The decision that Ilse and her lover make at the end seems contrived to tug readers’ heartstrings and create conflict for the next book, because the stated rationale for it makes no sense. I can’t see how this decision will help them any. They haven’t avoided the situation that spooked them. They’ve recreated it.
And now, despite my grumbles, I have a confession to make: I’ll probably read the sequel, Queen’s Hunt, when it comes out. I feel like I finally understand the politics, I want to see if the lovers reunite, and hopefully the plotting will be smoother this time around. But Passion Play was more frustrating than entertaining for me.