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…