Passion Play caught my eye based almost entirely on the rich cover art colors and the various reviews: it had glowing notices from Patricia Briggs, Anne McCaffrey, and Sherwood Smith, as well as several authors whose stuff I haven't read yet.
Rating: 3 stars
Length: Detailed and somewhat on the long side (512 pages)
Publication: October 12, 2010 from Tor Books
Premise: Therez Khalina is a sheltered merchant's daughter, struggling to stay sane and happy in the luxurious trap of her father's home. When she is promised into a marriage not of her choosing at the age of only fifteen, she decides to run away from home and seek her fortune. Once she's out on her own, however, she has to struggle just to survive and come out the other side with her sanity intact. The city street of Tiralien lead her to a new and dangerous way of life that will either save or destroy her.
Warnings: rape, gang rape, violent miscarriage, magical and mundane castration, implied torture
Recommendation: Much though I wanted to like this one, it never really seems to come alive-- there's plenty of intriguing potential here in the espionage department, though.
What keeps this one moving:
Therez's narrative voice flowsfrom the boundaries of her simple friendships to the shape of the larger world without missing a beat-- it's easy to track everything from general trade concerns to the magical stories that her grandmother carries from the north. The first scene features her playing the game of word links with her friend Klara as the girls scramble for free associations between ideas, and the game shows up as a light motif throughout the book. It helps showcase the flow of her thoughts and explain bits of theology or history that would otherwise feel a bit heavy so close to the beginning of the novel. The culture is illustrated with a light touch that pulls from medieval society as well as odder social configurations-- mages have a respected place in this world order once they're fully trained, but they work within the existing systems rather than transcending them. Beth Bernobich has a definite gift for not over-explaining how the world ticks.
Tracking individual guests various banquets and meetings can be difficult, but the larger kingdom concerns are easier to understand. Therez has grown up in Veraene, where King Armand is constantly on the edge of plotting war. To the north is Karovi, which has been ruled by Leos Dzavek for four centuries. He briefly had the stones that were once the eye of a god in his possession, and their lingering power has kept him alive. King Armand wants the stones for himself and wants to find clues in the north-- since Dzavek has no heirs, any instability could leave him with room to sweep in and conquer. The central characters are wrapped up in preventing this struggle. If a war breaks out, thousands will die on both sides and the odds increase that people will have to deal with another unnaturally immortal king preventing the realm from changing as it needs to do. Advisers to King Armand who tried to steer him toward peace were turned away. One among them, Raul Kosenmark, runs a shadow court of spies trying to hold the war back and keep the stones away from royalty...if they can even find them. It all makes for a good political tangle; minor players are easy to forget, but there are relatively few essential parties.
Caring about the character can be tricky at times, but they snap into sharp relief when they're scared and having to make decisions through panic or paranoia. Fear is at the root of much of the human weakness in this novel: fear of losing loved ones to death or new relationships, fear of betrayal, fear of connection and intimacy. It's rare to see character flaws and bad decisions hanging around a central motif like this, but Bernobich manages to make the whole thing work as a unifying thread instead of a heavy-handed lesson. Therez has run away from home because she's afraid of being trapped in the same cold prison of marriage that broke her mother, and she gets into worse danger when she reinvents herself as Ilse and is trapped in a cruel bargain because her fear of going home is worse than her fear of what comes next. Her new life, when she finds it, comes when she's so numb that she can't be afraid anymore and is able to finally choose for herself. Not to say that she becomes fearless, because she doesn't, but she learns to manage her panic and eventually manages to channel it to show how people who come off as more calm and collected are jumping to conclusions based on fear and lazy thinking. It helps all of them feel more like real people as well as making the conclusion more satisfying-- there's plenty of space for the sequels, but this ending has weight on its own.
The red pen:
The world as a whole could easily support a whole series, especially with the element of immortal rulers to destabilize normal power structures, but the characters can't quite live up to it. People outside the main cast tend to be fleshed out halfway just enough so that they start to draw interest, and then are all but dropped from the rest of the narrative. This grabs the worst of both worlds, spending too much time on minor characters in a way that detracts from the main story without taking the time to sustain those roles later on. This is all the ore bothersome when the narrative tries to frame those characters as emotionally relevant after very little in the way of investment-- when one character dies, everyone weeps at his funeral and Ilse reflects that he had come to feel like a second father to her after they'd barely spoken about anything but her job. Late in the book, she begs a friend for forgiveness after hurting someone that both of them love and respect. It's clearly meant as one of the emotional low point, the shattering of one of the first bonds she chose to form in her new life, but the two of them have rarely talked about anything very personal. Deep sources of pain that have haunted her for the entire book come up twice in later scenes when people from her past resurface, and both times the whole affair is addressed and resolved in barely five or ten pages. Bernobich excels at building up emotional incidents and reflecting on the aftermath, but the moments themselves are compressed in such a way that all of that setup doesn't even feel necessary, which is an absolute shame.
The central cast of characters is better but still somewhat odd. Raul Kosenmark runs a high-end brothel that he uses in part as a cover for espionage, and he takes Ilse in when he finds her on his doorstep. Their respectful negotiation that she absolutely will not trade her body but wants to work as a maid establishes a good dynamic wherein he is the teacher and authority figure but also displays a strong willingness to listen to her. Her training and organizational skills help her advance, but the whole relationship falters when she's pulled into his espionage. Ilse is intelligent, but she's also about sixteen and lives a very sheltered life, so having her respected as an equal in meeting and being shown sensitive documents denied to people who have been working in this conspiracy for most of her lifetime comes off as forced. The way she deals with the other maids at first showed hints of her trying to handle interactions at the bottom of the social ladder, but she's whisked up it so quickly that her progress doesn't feel convincing. Her emotional development has a similar problem, in that she's experienced profound brutality after a life that included no violence at all-- she makes great progress towards feeling safe and allowing herself to feel again at first. Unfortunately, she starts to feel as though she's on fast-forward, recovering quickly enough for the next bit of crush or pining. The early segments on all counts work so well that the uneven pacing of the later development is a definite disappointment. Some of these issues could be because six months or a year will suddenly pass by in a sort of time-lapse montage, but it feels like the details are set in the wrong place.
Detail shortages are perhaps most vexing the area of magic. We're shown that all magic begins with the same simple invocation and then describes the desired effect, and that it's difficult to learn-- some mages have a little power, enough to heal or make small enchantments, while others are able to project their images for hundreds of miles or heal horrific wounds. Unfortunately, the mechanism by which this magic works, or how some people become more powerful than others, is completely unclear. Some people have life-dreams of past lives when they could do magic and thus have an easier time learning it in the present, but the dreams are frustratingly rare and magic seems to happen in a scattershot fashion. Ilse tries to learn the basics from a healer and ends up "tapping the current" or something, which means.....almost exactly nothing because it's never explained and seems to serve as a way to set Ilse up for powers in future books rather than doing anything in the present.
As a whole, Passion Play shines in its worldbuilding and tone but remains detached from its own events. It does a strong job of making sexual trauma a part of character growth without sensationalizing or trivializing it-- despite that, the character relationships are too flat to sustain the weight of the plot after the halfway point. If the characterization clears up a little in future volumes this series could shine, and I'll definitely keep an eye out for whatever project Bernobich tackles after this one is finished.
Prospects: This is the first book in the River of Souls trilogy. The second, Queen's Hunt, came out in June, and the trilogy will conclude in October with Allegiance.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~The Kushiel's Legacy series is the best I've found for the whole "prostitute turned spy" thing, which is what the Passion Play cover text seems to promise it first. They end up being very different, but there's something in the prose and the endurance of both main characters that resonates (and Raul Kosenmark is quite reminiscent of Anafiel Delaunay).
~Jay Lake's Green tracks a similar arc from a childhood with limited choices to true confinement to the opportunity to make entirely new decisions. Green is both more bloodthirsty and more able to deal with her sexuality than Ilse is, but Ilse's intellectual gifts have the two occupying different-but-overlapping spheres. Jay Lake also recommended this book on the back flap, which is all the better if you're looking for overlap.
~Deerskin by Robin McKinley somehow manages to be simultaneously a warped fairy tale, a character study on the recovery from sexual assault, and a sweet coming-of-age story. I have no idea how and don't recommend this to anyone not already in high school, but it's beautiful prose from start to finish.