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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: Ars Memoriae

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

Though I tend to resist "there are two kinds of..." it seems to me that fiction often falls into roughly two categories, the inward and the outward. The inward is fiction that delves deeply into the self. Outward fiction is what the characters do as seen from the outside. Dashiell Hammett is my extreme example of outward, with his camera-eye view that never gets inside of the characters' heads. Proust is who I think of for the inward view.

Passion Play is an inward book, set in a fantastic universe rich with creative myth.

Beth Bernobich opens with the absorbing inward life of her protagonist, Therez, who is a typical teen, revelling in her own intelligence, sure she's figured out the world. Like many smart teens, when presented with her first big challenge (and it's a very big one) she cuts and runs, not really considering that there could be worse things out there than her problems at home. And she finds them when she joins a caravan. Bernobich manages to make the experience utterly real, yet at no time did I find that segment sensationalistic or gratuitous.

Therez is next taken in by elusive pleasure house owner Raul Kosenmark, who is drawn to the trauma-shocked teen in that visceral way that many trauma survivors connect with other survivors. He, too, was young and smart and thought he was taking the first step to power and influence when he voluntarily underwent castration. In a magic world, physiology and biology are going to be finessed to a greater or lesser extent -- and sure enough, we learn that castration can be reversed by magic. My interest is in the psychological and emotional fallout, because even though Raul may physically recover what he surrendered so blithely, the psychological and emotional effects have reshaped him permanently. So Kosenmark's high voice is a reminder of what he went through, just as his choices and actions are more subtle reminders that this guy, brilliant and mercurial, is a survivor.

Therez reinvents herself the way many PTSD survivors do -- she is now Ilse. This reinvention, this determination to write her own history in the world, is what drives the second half of the book. I loved it for the believable steps she takes to go from victim to hero. I believed in how Ilse first is tormented by the other servant girls, who are desperate to maintain their hierarchy in the small world of the kitchens, just as real people do. For the first time, Ilse makes that crucial step from ego to e pluribus unum in a way that I found more satisfying than if she'd marched back to the caravan and with her magic sword eviscerated all the bad guys. And the second step is to be willing to engage outside of the relatively safe kitchen world, and once again attempt to take her place in the dangerous outer world. Only this time, not by running, but in alliance and by degrees, assembling her tools one by one.

Raul, ejected from his world, also is reinventing himself through his shadow court -- a way for the powerless to engage the powerful. As Ilse begins to learn that world, the two of them are drawn together, emotionally paralleling in a real and fascinating complement, setting the reader up for the next segment of their adventures.

Full disclosure: I read this book through several drafts. Each time Beth Bernobich sent it back to me, I ended up absorbed all over again. It's got a unique structure -- the first half is action-fraught, and the second half is reaction to the action, in a way that I found more convincing than many novels, fantasy or not, that purport to explore the darker side of human relations, sex in particular. Subtle and complex, Raul and Ilse linger in memory, inspiring me to look forward to book two.

Copyright © 2011 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at

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