Beth Bernobich – Passion Play

Ilse Zhalina is the daughter of one of Melnek’s more prominent merchants. She has lived most of her life surrounded by the trappings of wealth and privilege. Many would consider hers a happy lot. But there are dark secrets, especially in the best of families. Ilse has learned that for a young woman of her beauty and social station, to be passive and silent is the best way to survive.

When Ilse finally meets the older man she is to marry, she realizes he is far crueler and more deadly than her father could ever be. Ilse chooses to run. This choice will change her life forever.

And it will lead her to Raul Kosenmark, master of one of the land’s most notorious pleasure houses…and who is, as Ilse discovers, a puppetmaster of a different sort altogether. Ilse discovers a world where every pleasure has a price and there are levels of magic and intrigue she once thought unimaginable. She also finds the other half of her heart.

When I first read the blurb for Passion Play, Beth Bernobich’s debut novel released last Tuesday, I was intrigued. I’d read some glowing praise for Ms. Bernobich’s short story work on Fantasy Book Critic and Liviu cited Passion Play as one of his top five anticipated novels for 2010. So when the opportunity arose to win an ARC in a giveaway at the TOR/Forge blog, I jumped at it. And to my amazement and excitement I actually won. My first ARC ever, I was so excited I squee-ed all over the house! Monday morning I started reading and I couldn’t put it down. Every time I had to, I grumbled and I stayed up late Tuesday night to finish it. And that hasn’t happened in a while!

Suffice it to say there was plenty to draw me into the book. I loved the idea that in the Erythandra universe reincarnation is just a fact of life, or death depending how you look at it, and that past life memories often surface in dreams. There are also hints that they can be actively explored by people versed in magic. In this book these ‘life-dreams’ were fragmentary and mainly seemed to serve as a romantic link between Ilse and Kosenmark, but hopefully in the following books Bernobich will take time to explore these a little further as I found them really fascinating. The characters in the story are sympathetic and I wanted to know how they ended up. In the same vein, the villains in the book, large and small, are unsympathetic and it’s good to see them get their comeuppance in the end. The only one for who this isn’t true is the greatest villain of the book, the courtmage Lord Khandarr. His motivations, beyond wanting to be allpowerful, are unclear, which makes him a rather one-dimensional bad-guy.

For me the most problematic parts of the book were its beginning and the journey to Tirallien. The book begins with a scene between our protagonist and her best friend. The protagonist is called Therez, which confused me since the blurb talked about an Ilse. This kept throwing me out of the story until I flipped forward and realised she’d be changing her name. The other part which really bothered me is the passage where she sells herself for a chance at freedom. It felt really wrong and while it impresses Ilse’s desperation to get away from home to the reader, I wish there would have been another way to stress this. However, once Ilse reaches Tirallien and Lord Kosenmark’s household, the story really hits its stride and the combination of intrigue and romance sucked me in and made it almost impossible to put the book down.

The rather abrupt ending of the novel left me pretty baffled, so I went online to look at Ms. Bernobich’s site to see whether it was part of a series. Fortunately, Passion Play is the first book in the Erythandra series. So we have at least three more installments to look forward too. It would have been nice, however, if this had been mentioned somewhere on the cover of the book.  The discovery that there would be more books made me heave a sigh of relief, since there are several things I’d like to see explored in those future books. I’d love to see more of the life dreams and maybe visit the city of Duenne and explore its court. And I’d really like some more background on the workings of magic in this universe. The Anderswar, the magic realm, is important to the story, but at the same time its mechanics are very nebulous.

My favourite line of the book comes from the final page:

A future whose words I choose. 

Being able to choose your own future and your own path is a gift many of us take for granted. And it’s exactly that struggle to be free to choose her own path that is at the core of Ilse’s journey. It’ll be interesting to see where it takes her.

Despite some problems, Passion Play was a thoroughly engrossing read. Ms Bernobich’s writing is lovely with at times a lovely, lyrical bent. The story she spins us is exciting, moving and beautiful. I for one look forward to the sequel to this solid first novel. Queen’s Hunt is expected Fall 2011. Until that time the extra’s you can find on Ms. Bernobich’s site will have to satisfy your curiousity.