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.