by Beth Bernobich
167 pages, Tor
Review by Melissa Conway
This is Bernobich’s debut novel, and I found it shelved in the Science Fiction section (where it belonged), but I was rather stymied by the title. ‘Passion Play’ sounds like something you’d find on the cover of a bodice ripper, or even an erotic novel, neither of which fits here. The ‘passion’ within is minimal, and there’s very little ‘play.’
Therez is a young woman on the verge of adulthood, living with her family in a town where magic is out of fashion. Her ailing grandmother has told her many of the old stories, and has instilled in her a belief of magic, but Therez has only felt its presence within herself by accident.
Therez’ father is a cold, controlling man, so much so that she decides to run away rather than submit to an arranged marriage. She pays to join a caravan to a far-away city and ends up having to choose between becoming the caravan whore, or having the caravan boss send her back to her father. This is the weakest part of the narrative, where I couldn’t help but question the main character’s motivation. Therez is a virgin and naïve, but her decision to give herself to a disgusting man to avoid her erstwhile bridegroom is simply unbelievable. She quickly realizes her mistake, as her body is made available to all the men in the caravan, who use her often and brutally. The writing effectively gets across the horrors of her abuse, firmly establishing for the reader her resulting psychological state. There is nothing faintly resembling the passion of the title in these scenes.
However, once she escapes and finds refuge as a scullery-maid in a house of pleasure, the narrative straightens out and really begins to pull the reader in. Therez has changed her name to Ilse, and despite her best efforts to blend in, is unable to hide that she was gently raised and educated. She’s soon promoted to the assistant of the house bookkeeper, and has impressed the owner, a handsome eunuch. Yes, that’s right, he was once a member of the king’s court and forced to undergo some drastic surgery to ensure his loyalty, but the new king booted all the old advisors out and is now being influenced by a powerful mage. Lord Kosenmark (our eunuch) dabbles in political intrigue, and Ilse is soon up to her neck in conspiracy.
Kosenmark teaches Ilse to fight, and she also begins lessons in magic. Her boss has a male lover, but by the end of the book, they’ve broken up and Ilse has replaced him. This is more believable than it sounds, due to Bernobich’s strong characterization. This is obviously the first in a series, one that I just might continue reading once the next book comes out.