Fantasy Review: ‘Passion Play’ by Beth Bernobich

It is a rare thing for me to finish a novel and not have a good idea of what I think. I know Passion Playsome people mull over a book for a time period before moving on to the next book; especially true of those who are then going to put their feelings down on paper. But it just isn’t my way, I like to start writing while the ideas are still fresh and while I may not know what I want to say about a book immediately I am always certain about at least my basic, overall impression.

Passion Play stumped me. Maybe because I can’t think of another book like it (something the author’s excellent book The Time Roads and it have in common). On the surface it is an epic fantasy about a kingdom in turmoil, nothing unique there. The focus on a single character throughout is also not uncommon. But at this juncture, one book into a trilogy, the protagonist proves to be someone sitting very much on the outside of all the major events. Which isn’t to say she isn’t living a life worth reading about, but thus far she isn’t ‘making history.’ Perhaps young Ilse will go on to great things that move kingdoms. Perhaps this is a story that takes the less spectacular path. Either way is fine by me, but after one book there is very little indication of which way that will go.

Ilse, still young at fifteen, makes a very rash move to start her journey. Perhaps her intuition was correct, perhaps not, but running from a forced marriage puts her in a horrifying situation. A trigger warning is needed here, Ilse will face a prolonged assault early in her journey that is not easy to read about. Her shock doesn’t fade in this story; it is not something she will just get over. Neither will she let it define her through, a fine balance that I feel is pulled off with brutal honestly and emotion. Her journey takes her from a rich man’s daughter (words chosen quite deliberately, for that is how her place in the world is defined early in life) to a beggar, to a lowly kitchen drudge in a brothel owned by a seemingly benevolent enigma named Raul.

This is a story about Ilse rising and remaking herself the way she prefers, with Raul providing support to her with support that others are unlikely to get. And after this somewhat disjointed transition the second half of the story takes over; one of intrigue and the aforementioned power struggle of a kingdom. Ilse’s background allows her an opportunity, and that opportunity puts her right in the middle of Raul’s dealings. Except it doesn’t, because Raul may be working some major intrigue but he is doing it so far form the center of this Kingdom’s power base that the results are hardly seen.

And here is where I come back to my uncertainly of what I think of the series thus far. While very readable, and with Ilse proving to be a very likable protagonist in the way she is rebuilding and growing, I am not sure the intrigue and espionage-like plotline involves much of anything. Ilse is never on the inside and when she finally is…Raul wraps up her role to keep her from danger. It isn’t quite that simple of course but ultimately that is the result.   And I know this is a series and no ending is really an end but it felt like an end of sorts and a bit unsatisfying.

There is plenty here to make me want to read the next book. Ilse has a story worth reading and some of the background info we get on the building tensions in the kingdom are fascinating. Further books could prove that Passion Play is as much about set up as anything else, it could join a few books I look upon more fondly after reading their subsenquential volumes. Standing on its own through I think I just read a book that shines at its best and is never bad, but stumbles along the way.

3 Stars

Copy for review provided by the author.



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