Author: Beth Bernobich
Publisher: Tor Books, 2010
First off, many thanks to Cat who told me to go read this book. I was not disappointed at all. Passion Play is a glorious, slowly unfolding fantasy epic that drew me into a world so well realised it left me breathless.
Central to the plot is Ilse Zhalina, the daughter of a well-to-do merchant, whose disastrous attempt to run away from an arranged marriage brings her to the doorstep of the pleasure house owned by Raul Kosenmark, and into a world of intrigue.
First off, there were so many things that I loved about this novel. A big one for me was that so many of the characters were clearly non-Caucasian. [Does big happy dance for that—no blue-eyed, blond-haired damsels in sight.] Another big thing for me that made me extremely happy was the fluidity of sexual preference. In fact, traditional gender roles are blurred, as both men and women can take up soldiering as a career (about time too in fantasy). An intriguing element that Beth Bernobich blends in is the world’s cosmology, which hints at some sort of experience of past lives, and how magic, small and large, is an everyday occurrence and a skill that is learned (though wielded with some proficiency by those of obvious talent).
Okay, so the world building really worked for me. Bernobich’s writing is tactile, and I was left with a very definite sense of place. I could taste those pastries and smell the coffee, so to speak.
My only criticism against the novel is the way she compresses time. But this is understandably tricky because the novel covers two years, and of course to go into exhaustive detail that entire time would’ve resulted in a doorstopper that would have dragged. There was one spot where I felt the pacing jerked, but one only. And it honestly didn’t bother me too much because this entire novel is one glorious celebration of fantasy I’ll happily compare favourably to the likes of George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey.
Ilse as a character is resilient. Hats off to Bernobich for not wrapping her characters in cotton wool. Ilse’s choices are not always the wisest, and she gets hurt for her mistakes, and badly at the onset of the story. But she learns, and it is an absolute pleasure watching her come into her own. Raul is more of a cipher. Perhaps his greatest fault is his arrogance, and his propensity for secrets. But when he gives his love, he loves fiercely, and I’m curious to see whether he’ll step out of the shadows in the next novel and take a more active role.
Passion Play moves slowly, but every step of the journey is exquisite, if you’re looking for story that blends myth, magic and intrigue against a greater backdrop that hints at an epic past. And if you feel the same way I did, you’ll rush out and buy book two before you’re even done with book one.