Reviewed by Berni Phillips Bratman
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:1 (#342) in January 2011.]
For those readers who wished Éowyn had a larger page count in Lord of the Rings, have I got a girl for you! Beth Bernobich’s first novel, Passion Play, is the story of Ilse, née Therez, Zhalina. A rich merchant’s daughter, she decides to run away from home after her father unexpectedly promises her to a man she instinctively fears. This is her first choice in this novel about “how to act when neither choice was entirely good, and yet act they must” (256).
A privileged girl running away from home is hardly original in fantasy, but Bernobich’s eyes-open treatment of the subject is. In the real world, we know that teenaged girls who run away from home all too frequently fall prey to men who abuse them, physically and sexually. In fantasies, there is often a hero who manages to save the girl from such a fate, or she’s a plucky little Mary Sue who manages to save herself. Bernobich does not spare Therez from the more realistic fate. Therez signs on with a caravan, giving herself the new name of Ilse as she seeks to change her life. Therez truly becomes Ilse – the character is no longer called Therez—after one of those horrible real-world choices she is forced to make.
This section of the book may be difficult for some to read. It’s something that every parent fears will happen to their daughter, and you have to wonder if Ilse had been foolish to leave home. Later in the book, Ilse still feels strongly about this first choice: “’I hated home. It was like death. All wrapped in silk and scented with herbs, but dead. Dead and silent and locked in the dark. When I left, I said I would never go back. Never. No matter what happened. And so much did. So much’” (197).
She manages to escape and make her way to Tiralien and eventual employment in the house of a lord. The lord’s business is pleasure, which is difficult for a rape survivor to confront, but she steels herself to do the best job she can in her new position in the kitchen. Ilse works hard and admits her mistakes. She manages to advance by her own merits (she is, after all, educated), but the all-too-common jealousy from her co-workers does not allow her to forget her past. Over and over, she repeats what she had to do, the result of a choice she made. She’s never in any danger of having her feet anywhere except firmly planted on the ground because her past follows her. This makes her a very believable, well-rounded character.
Passion Play is the first book in a trilogy that is a secondary world fantasy. Bernobich’s world building is good—I wish the ARC I had came with a map, but from the pages marked “MAP TK,” it looks like the published edition will. There is much talk of various places, and a map will be useful. Besides the geography, there is a history and mythology referred to periodically. Magic is real and the characters have past lives which they may recall glimpses of.
I really liked the pacing in this book. It starts out simply with Therez and her best friend playing a word game. This word game becomes a recurring motif throughout the novel, a way of Ilse admitting her true feelings to herself with each chain of association the word game brings up. The plot elements build in a logical, methodical, but not boring manner. There is no romance for much of the book, so when it does come in, you have the rare experience of truly seeing why the hero loves the heroine for her brain and not just her beauty. Once romance blossoms, you believe it, for the characters have been built up so carefully by then.
In short, Beth Bernobich’s first novel is an honest coming-of-age tale of a courageous heroine one can genuinely admire for taking responsibility for her choices, good and bad.