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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

“Passion Play” by Beth Bernobich (Reviewed by Robert Thompson & Liviu Suciu)

Official Beth Bernobich Website
Order “Passion PlayHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read the Erythandra Short StoryRiver of SoulsHERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Review of “A Handful of Pearls & Other Stories

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Beth Bernobich comes from a family of storytellers, artists and engineers. She juggles her time between working with computer software, writing, family, and karate. Her bibliography includes the short story collection, A Handful of Pearls & Other Stories (Lethe Press), the Ars Memoriae novella (PS Publishing), and numerous short stories that have appeared in publications such as Asimov's, Interzone, Postscripts, and Strange Horizons. Passion Play is her first novel.

PLOT SUMMARY: As the daughter of one of Melnek’s more prominent merchants, Therez Zhalina has lived most of her life surrounded by the trappings of wealth and privilege. Many would consider hers a happy lot, but even in the best of families there are dark secrets. Therez has learned that for a woman of her age, beauty and social station, being passive and silent is the best way to survive.

But when Therez meets the man she is to marry, she realizes he is far crueler and more deadly than her father could ever be. So Therez chooses to run, a decision that changes her life forever, starting with her name: Ilse.

It also leads her to Raul Kosenmark, the master of a pleasure house . . . and the puppetmaster of a different sort altogether. Here, Ilse discovers a world of intrigue, wild magic, seduction and treachery where the fate of kingdoms lie in the balance. A world where Ilse must master her passions in order to win all that she desires...

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 falls in PG-13 territory for most of the novel.

FORMAT/INFO: Passion Play is 368 pages long divided over twenty-eight numbered chapters. Narration is in the third-person exclusively via Therez Zhalina, who changes her name to Ilse Zhalina about seventy 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.

ROBERT'S 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 very own 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. To be honest, 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 the difficulties of Therez’s home life.

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; and 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 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...

LIVIU’S ANALYSIS: Passion Play was my most expected debut of the second half of the year so I came to it with extremely high expectations and they were mostly met though the book was not quite what I expected based on the pre-release blurb. However, considering the author's superb collection A Handful of Pearls & Other Stories, what I was looking for in the novel, first and foremost, were beautiful prose and great characters, with an epic story or sophisticated world building more of a bonus and Passion Play shines in those two aspects.

The writing is just wonderful, the narrative flows smoothly and once you start the novel, it is very hard to stop reading it. There are heart-wrenching, and even quite dark moments in the book, but the author's style renders them pitch perfect . . . emotional but not exploitative.

I quite liked Therez/Ilse as a character. Her strong will and determination to make her own way, coupled with her touching naivete about "outside life" that leads to trouble and suffering makes her a very memorable character whom we see evolving quite a lot even during the relatively short novel that Passion Play turned out to be. Lord Kosenmark is more of a mystery since we get only hints about his past, his motivations and his ambitions, but he fits the role of experienced mentor and possible romantic interest very credibly.

The comparison with Jacqueline Carey's debut Kushiel’s Dart is somewhat misleading because that novel was an epic saga with a large cast and with romantic and explicit elements on the side, while Passion Play is romantic fantasy with two characters — she and he (though "he" is a strange one indeed) — and essentially nobody else of note. As such, I utterly loved it and the Eastern European naming worked very well for me, while the hints about the big picture were quite exciting so the series has a huge potential in the epic/world building aspects too.

I really hated that the book ended since I wanted much more. The only niggle I had was the use of third-person narration instead of first-person since the book has only one POV anyway, and I love first-person narration whenever it is possible to be used, while the aforementioned Legacy of Kushiel series shows that you can have an epic story narrated in the first-person.

Passion Play (A+) is emotional and excellent, but to be continued for full appreciation with its 2011 sequel a Top 10 anticipated fantasy of mine.

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