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Passion Play
Beth Bernobich
Tor, 367 pages

Passion Play
Beth Bernobich
Beth Bernobich is a writer, reader, mother, geek, and struggling student of the martial arts. She writes science fiction, fantasy, and erotica, sometimes all in the same story.

Beth Bernobich Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Passion Play
SF Site Review: Ars Memoriae

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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Passion Play is the first novel from Beth Bernobich, who has published a number of colorful and often desperately romantic, yet gritty and honest, short stories in recent years, several about a sort of alternate Ireland (called Èirann), its Queen, and mathematics. This novel is not set in that world, but it does share the same atmosphere: a certain desperate romanticism mixed with grit. It's a lovely debut: compulsively readable, moving but not conventional, well-written.

The heroine, at least as the story opens, is named Therez Zhalina. She is the daughter of a rich merchant in the city of Melnek in the country of Veraene. Her life is comfortable, marred only by her father's coldness, manifested by a certain pennypinching attitude and by what seems to be a loveless marriage, and by a complete lack of understanding of his children's (or his wife's) needs. (All this is only hinted at.) But 15-year-old Therez hopes to have her life broadened when she accompanies her older brother to his university. Alas, all her plans are destroyed when her father decides to marry her off to an influential man. But Therez, on meeting the man, takes an immediate dislike to him, and is further furious at the lack of any consideration of her own future. So she decides to run away.

The following scenes are rather harrowing. She is cheated, robbed, and serially raped. Bernobich portrays all this quite realistically, with no romantic or optimistic edge. One feels this section something of a corrective to the conventional story of a teenager escaping to a perhaps scary but ultimately rewarding adventure. Therez, now having renamed herself Ilse, faces nothing but degradation, but maintains her sense of self, and finally escapes to a different town than she had first aimed for: Tiralien, an important provincial city in Veraene. Here she nearly dies, but is saved by Lord Kosenmark, an advisor to the former King, who exiled himself to Tiralien and opened a "house of pleasure" after the new King replaced all his predecessor's advisors. Lord Kosenmark is a eunuch (a requirement of the King's advisors, to prevent them putting their children's interests ahead of the Kingdom's), with a male lover. (This society appears to treat sexuality as fluid, and to have no strong cultural taboos against homosexuality.) Here the book takes a somewhat conventional turn: such aspects as Lord Kosenmark running a whorehouse, and as Ilse's subsequent career, first in the kitchens but soon becoming assistant to Lord Kosenmark's secretary and close advisor, do have the whiff of cliché, but they are handled gracefully and Ilse's life remains something the reader is thoroughly involved in.

Here, the main plot elements of what will be a series of books (Tor, as is their unfortunate habit, give no indication of this in the jacket material or frontmatter) become clear. Lord Kosenmark is the leader of an opposition movement to the new King, Armand, and especially to his chief counselor, the mage Markus Khandarr. These two seem poised to plunge Veraene into an unnecessary war with their neighbor Károvi and its centuries-old ruler. Lord Kosenmark's opposition may be regarded as treason, so he and his associates are in mortal danger -- and also in danger of subversion to Khandarr's evil magic. Moreover the ancient King of Károvi has magical secrets, which may be the key to resolving the tensions between the two nations. Ilse is soon fully involved in these plots, even as she struggles with her personal issues: her difficulty in trusting Lord Kosenmark even while she is falling in love with him, as well as her understandable difficulty in trusting sexual feelings after her experience with rape. All these tensions drive the plot as the novel comes to a close -- and will continue to drive the plot in whatever sequels there will be.

I really enjoyed Passion Play. I did have a few reservations -- I have already mentioned a couple of dips into cliché (but not fatal dips). On occasion the plot is advanced rather abruptly, not always wholly believably. The opening does not, to my mind, sufficiently place Therez in position where her actions are quite plausible -- it's not that I don't believe she might have wanted to do that, it's just that I think a bit more stage setting would have made her choices more inevitable-seeming. And I must say the title is simply bland, not to mention it was used fairly recently for Sean Stewart's (very different) first novel. And of course the publisher's refusal to present the novel as first of a series is quite annoying. But these are minor issues. The book is above all extremely readable, just a joy to gobble up throughout. Bernobich is a graceful and witty writer.

Ilse, in particular, is, by the end, a fully rounded character, and one we are glad to accompany. The resolution to this novel is honest, and also well done in maintaining a romantic tension point for future novels despite having fairly solved the romantic plot points raised herein. The political elements introduced are messy -- at times a bit confusing, but in a believable way. (Lord Kosenmark appears to be mostly right, but perhaps not entirely, for example.) The magical elements, which I have not much discussed above, are nicely backgrounded. It's clear this is a fantasy world, with a creation myth that may or may not be really true (probably it is not but reflects the base of the world's magical structure). The magic itself is not seen overmuch here, but well-described, somewhat limited in scope so that it doesn't seem artificial, and interesting enough to support the greater importance it will likely have in future books. This is definitely one of the best first novels of 2010.

Copyright © 2011 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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