by Beth Bernobich, fantasy (2012, reissue)
Tor, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-6198-1
When Passion Play was first released in hardcover back in 2010, it had a far more accurate cover art than this mass market paperback reissue. This particular cover indicates an action heroine in the usual "stare at my butt while I wield a dagger and glare angrily at you for staring at my butt" cover, when the heroine is less... exertive.
Therez Zalina is the daughter of an iron-willed and ruthless merchant who learns shortly after the story begins that she is to be married off to a guy that she finds unpleasant. She suspects that he has a cruel streak. Since his father rules the family, she has no support from her mother and her brother, while her beloved grandmother is dying. So she runs away. Anything and everything horrible that can befall a sheltered sixteen-year old girl on her own happens on our heroine, but she eventually stumbles into the care of our hero, Raul Kosenmark.
That's when Therez, who calls herself Ilse now, starts to reveal her awesomeness. Despite being new at everything, she excels in those everything until those other bitches are either jealous or in awe. Despite having a boyfriend, Raul is so mesmerized by Ilse's awesome hoochie and, of course, her spirit and intelligence until they both boink and, occasionally, spare a guilty thought for that boyfriend but not that it matters, since he's not awesome like Ilse. Ilse discovers that she is awesome at being Raul's sidekick in intrigue too - at least, Raul seems to think so despite her having no experience in it - and, eventually, she's on her way up just like Luke Skywalker's extending lightsaber.
Passion Play is a fantasy story in a Renaissance Europe-like setting, and for the most part, there is a somewhat interesting story here, even if it's one that doesn't break new grounds. But it's hard for me to get fully involved in this story because of several things.
This is basically a zero-to-hero kind of story, with me supposed to root for the heroine as she overcomes various adversities to emerge triumphant. Oh, and she gets the man too. But Ilse here ends up more like a sponge. She feels guilt, horror, and other emotions only for as long as the sentence lasts. Her emotions rarely linger over a realistic length of time no matter what kind of traumatic event befalls her, and there are many such traumatic events here. As a result, I never once feel that Ilse is a believable character. She's more like a cartoon heroine, and that may have worked well in another story. This story, however, is centered around the heroine, and as such, the heroine should feel real enough to engage my emotions. Ilse isn't that heroine. Because she shows little believable emotion, I never feel that there is any instance where she would fail or die. She gets raped, shot... whatever. It's hard to care when the writing makes Ilse such a deadpan monotonous character.
The romance isn't bad, but I end up feeling more sorry for that other guy than anything else. Then again, it could be because Ilse is such a wooden plank of a character, and Raul's falling in love with her seems more like a plot fixture than an organic development in the story.
The setting is also quite vague, and this is an issue because when the political intrigue elements come into play, I find it hard to understand why these things happen and why I should care. The world building is flimsy, with the author throwing things into the scenery without making these things come together to form a coherent idea of the whole setting. Most of the pivotal scenes take place off-stage, which only make things worse. At the end of the day, the whole drama boils down to, simply, Raul has ambitions, crap happens, but he and Ilse come out on top, yay - the end. The problem here is that the author throws exotic made-up names and such all over the place, but I never get the feel of the setting other than it's vaguely historical, so to speak.
Of course there is a sequel, but after reading this book, I find myself in no hurry to read that one. I wonder why.
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