But through the magic of suspended disbelief, we readily accept the validity of a novel's fictional world, and view as real and meaningful its characters and their actions, as long as every detail is believable. What destroys Passion Play, where the 'lie' begins to break down, is the male lead, Lord Raul Kosenmark. But perhaps those other characters may be forgiven because, once out of the kitchen, Ilse thinks and behaves like a 25 or 30 year old woman. Except for one, hard-to-believe battle (Ilse, barely trained in self-defense, defeats two well-armed professional soldiers), the bulk of the action -- battles, murders, the machinations of Khandarr, the evil magician -- takes place off-stage, the reader learning about these things through letters. (Khandarr appears once, briefly and ineffectually, when he magically crashes a meeting, looks around ominously in actuality, checking attendance and then is shooed away.) Bernobich's conversations flow easily and naturally, and, in the first part of the book anyway, the characters, even the minor ones, come to life. The author mentions in her acknowledgments that it took her many years to write the book, that she fumbled toward the story she wanted to tell, and that one person advised her where to start, and another where to end, the novel. Passion Play is dedicated to the redoubtable Sherwood Smith who, Bernobich writes, read draft after draft, giving me feedback on prose and plot and characters. If the sequel concerned only her, I would read it, although given that she and Raul will be miles apart, I fear the plot will once more involve opening endless amounts of mail.
I wasn't as offput by it, I thought it was quite interesting and well done actually, but there was a bit of false advertising here, because after some brutal sexual exploitation, the heroine ends up in a "pleasure house" working and THEN THERE IS ALMOST NO SEX! Seriously, practically no sexual stuff AT ALL regarding the people who work there, and only a tiny bit with the heroine later that was so "fade to black" it was ridiculous. It felt like serious backpedaling to me, and a bit of false advertising because the promo blurbs had a lot of Jaqueline Carey comparisons.
But it just isnt 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. 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. Except it doesnt, because Raul may be working some major intrigue but he is doing it so far form the center of this Kingdoms power base that the results are hardly seen. 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 has a story worth reading and some of the background info we get on the building tensions in the kingdom are fascinating. 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.
THIS BOOK SHOULD COME WITH A WARNING LABEL: Page 66 is where the gang-rape scenes start. If I had read it myself, I would never have picked up the book and the world would be a happier place. (We agreed I would be too disturbed, so he summarizes.) But there's no way he's going to pre-censor a book called "Passion Play" about a merchant's daughter finding her true love in a pleasure house. Let me tell you: This book goes the extra mile to realistically portray what would happen if a young, vulnerable 15-year-old girl runs away from being sold and instead falls into the hands of sex slave traders. I hate myself for having picked up this book. I want to throw up for having read six additional pages. Otherwise, prepare for another horrified review by a sickened reader who now wishes bad things on the author, editor, cover artist (I hate that you made this cover so beautiful!
Unfortunately, the caravan owner has his own agenda and takes advantage of 15 year-old Ilse. Where was the passion between Ilse and Raul? Or even Raul and Dedrick? Raul and Ilse fall in love, but they dont have a HEA.
I liked the main character, she is a very strong person (and not in a She-Ra warrior woman way). This has the feel of another long journey, both personal and geographic, like that taken by Phèdre in the Kushiel's Dart series. But I really didn't get any feel that her father was so absolutely terrible, (view spoiler) at least not enough to put herself in the position she did with the caravan, especially seeing his reaction when she tells him what happened to her and that she did it willingly to escape him, and in that he left her 1/3 of his estate when he died.
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. 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. I occasionally thought that this book was going to pull in one of the tired standard cliches.
There are very few occasions where rape needs to be described in a fiction/fantasy book - and when it is - there needs to be a "Trigger Warning" on the cover. I can think of no circumstance when rape needs to be viscerally described in a book advertised as romantic fantasy. To see rape actively used and described in a fiction/fantasy book that is advertised as "romance" is disgusting. One could also argue that the main character "gave her consent," and therefore, this was not rape, but whoring - and ultimately, her choice. And the rape was blamed on the victim - because she "gave her consent." That said, the main character does make stupid choices.
However, after that point, the focus of the book suddenly changed to the political wrangling of the main characters - and that just wasn't nearly as interesting to me. If the kings and other political players had just been given some face-to-face screen time, instead of leaving them so shadowy and indistinct, or if these events had seemed to threaten or affect Ilse in some real, tangible way, then I could have felt some genuine urgency about their resolution.
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. It's the kind of thing I *wish* I could write, and what WtSiRR could have been if I was a better writer.