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Passion Play Hardcover – Bargain Price, October 12, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Bernobich lays the groundwork for a trilogy, but leaves all her plot threads untied in this fantasy debut with a Renaissance Europe feel. The flower of a wealthy mercantile family, 16-year-old Therez Zhalina hates living at home, suffering as her father and grandmother fight, her mother cringes before her father's rages, and her brother withdraws. When she discovers that her father has picked out a cruel and power-hungry man to be her husband, she panics and runs away. Her trials during her flight are perhaps the most realistic in this coming-of-age tale packed with magic and politics. Therez, now called Ilse, quickly outgrows her naïveté and finds her salvation when she meets Raul Kosenmark, an exiled prince trying to save the world that rejected him. Just as she gets embroiled in Raul's intrigues and secrets and the story starts going somewhere, the book ends. Readers will be frustrated--and impatient for a sequel.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Ilse Zhalina is just 15 when her wealthy father decides to marry her off to a powerful guild leader many years older than she is. Unable to change her father’s mind, Ilse decides to run away. She finds passage with a caravan but is robbed and forced into prostitution by the cruel driver. When she finally makes her escape, Ilse flees to the city of Tiralien, where she’s taken in by Lord Raul Kosenmark, the wealthy owner of a pleasure house. Raul sees that she’s nursed back to health and eventually invites her to be the assistant to his secretary. Once Ilse sees Raul’s correspondence, she realizes the pleasure house is a front for Raul’s intelligence network of noblemen and -women. Raul and his cohorts fear a war is brewing between two powerful kings and are determined to stop it. As Ilse is drawn further into the intrigue, she finds herself falling for the enigmatic Raul, despite her fears that his affections belong to another. Bernobich’s debut is a rich, compulsively readable fantasy. --Kristine Huntley
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So, the plot basics. It starts with what looks like a fairly standard fantasy trope: a young woman of a wealthy family runs away from an arranged marriage. But "running away" turns out to be much more complicated than it seems, and then it turns out that the story isn't really about the arranged marriage at all; that's merely the impetus for a whole cascade of complex events, in which our protagonist tumbles into, and then seriously starts acting proactively within, a much larger story. Politics abound; there is some magic, and some combat, but a great deal of this is highly plausible political work behind the scenes, where there's more paperwork and planning than sneaking and stabbing.
My caveats first: I found the politics confusing and difficult to follow, because I'm terrible at remembering names. This did, alas, occasionally leave me going "What? Who?" at some dramatic revelations, because I just didn't remember who the named people were. But that's my own poor memory for names, and shouldn't be taken as a criticism of the book itself. The book ends, if not on a cliffhanger, at least on what's clearly the close of one act in a play: the biggest plot threads are all deferred for later resolution.
There was also some serious, horrible rape within the book, which I did not know going in, and which was an unpleasant shock when it arrived.
But this is the best handling I've ever seen of rape in a work of fiction. (An awkward sort of sentence to write, but it's true.) There is no glamorizing, no dwelling on the details, no quick fixes, no cheap tropes for rescue or revenge that Solve The Problem. Horrible things happen, and they matter a great deal, but they do not define the protagonist.
Which gets to the heart of this book's strengths. Every character, however briefly appearing, is clearly a complex person with their own motivations, no matter how Good or Evil by the standards of the reader or the protagonist. The entire book deals with emotions and relationships--and the amazingly complex tangles they get into--with an unusual, breathtaking sensitivity and grace. Even the family relationships, which are so front-and-center in the first few chapters, and then off-screen for much of the rest of the story, are dealt with in a way that shows it's never so simple as the Cruel Parent and Nice Parent, or the Breach Of Family Trust, or...well, any of those usual cheap solutions.
I occasionally thought that this book was going to pull in one of the tired standard cliches. About recovery from rape, about the love of a good man, about showing up those who didn't believe in you, about revenge, about redemption. It did not. It has emotional depth that I cannot praise highly enough.
In a way, I'd been avoiding Passion Play. I've known Beth online for a number of years, and while I knew she was a good writer (I'd read short stories of hers), I also liked her as a person, and that generally makes me antsy about reading someone's novels. There's always that awkward "oh god but what if I hate it?"
I'm so glad Tor finally made the ebook available in Africa, and that I took the chance. Because yes. This is the kind of fantasy I love - gorgeous worldbuilding, fluid sexuality, slow-burn romance, political and courtly intrigue, the simmering of potential war contrasted with a girl rebuilding her life and discovering who she is and what she wants.
I'm so glad that there are people still writing this kind of fantasy - Bernobich and Monette spring to mind - and I plan to go dig up some more because reading this made me realise just how much I love these kinds of stories. I will definitely be buying the rest of this series
And now for the slightly weird part of my not-a-review. (Ha!) If you enjoyed When the Sea is Rising Red, then go read this book. It's the kind of thing I *wish* I could write, and what WtSiRR could have been if I was a better writer
Unfortunately, some of the events/character developments in this book were so unlikely, that it was difficult in the end to take the story seriously.
The main character, a 15 year old girl, rich, bookish, with little experience of the world, escapes the frightening marriage her miserly controlling father contracts for her. After the brutality she experiences with the caravan that she initially pays to take her to the city called Duenne (Vienna in this alternate world?), she escapes across a frozen wasteland and for weeks travels alone until she reaches another city where she hopes to find work.
This is where the unreality sets in, as Therez manages to figure out how to forage for food within a couple of days in the wilderness (something people spend a lifetime learning). She survives handily after that. Once in the city, she's rescued by Raul, master of a pleasure house, and within 9 months (after about 3 months of work as a scullery maid), she becomes his confidant and advisor, a voice of wisdom and experience. This too is so unlikely - Raul is apparently quite a bit older than she is, well educated and supremely experienced in politics, strategy and history.
However well-read Therez/Ilse is, she is by now a 16 year old girl, who'd lived a supremely sheltered life. Hard to believe that within 9 months she has become Raul's equal in every way.
There are other irritants as well for the reader, such as the lack of a meaningful magical system to explain the use of magic, and proliferation of political intrigues that sort of pop up without much context. But these would be tolerable, were it not for the unconvincing development of the main character.
Hopefully as the author continues this trilogy, she will manage to balance the writing quality with believable characters.
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