Passion Play is the first book in the Erythandra series. We are introduced to Therez Zhalina (later Ilse), the daughter of a well-to-do merchant. She lives a privileged life but is dependent on the continued vitality of her father’s business. To ensure the family’s continued wealth and station, Therez’s father promises her hand in marriage to an older man, Theodr Galt, who is poised to help the Zhalina family.
Based on the rumors she hears about Galt’s broken engagement with another woman from a prominent family, Therez deduces that Galt is cruel. Her fears are compounded when she intuits a deep-rooted anger from his mere touch. Frightened by the prospect of a life trapped in a gilded cage with a probable monster, Therez decides to run away and assume the name Ilse.
An admirable heroine
Passion Play starts off strong. I felt I was right next to Therez/Ilse as she attempts escape her impending marriage and is forced into harrowing experiences while bargaining for passage. (Warning: there are multiple rapes in succession.) I admired Ilse because no matter how hard things get for her, she never regrets her decision to leave—that was the one choice she did get to make. No one should ever have to suffer so much for freedom, but freedom isn’t free, and Ilse remains dedicated to forging her own path.
A troubling romance
Ilse remains jobless until Duke Raul offers her a position in the kitchen of his pleasure house. Raul is by no means a conventional love interest, and the author made a gutsy choice in selecting him, which I admire. I even understand why, given Ilse’s escape experience, she may be drawn to Raul; but after everything I went through with Ilse, I felt she deserved better. She may be physically safe with Raul, but I found him condescending, cold, and oppressive. Certainly, there is room to grow as a character, and Raul may grow to deserve Ilse.
Problems with pacing
While Ilse’s adventures begin with a swift pace, once Raul decides to elevate her to a secretarial position, the book slows to a crawl. Ilse learns of political plots and far-off events through letters that she has to deliver and subsequent conversations with Raul. If letters and conversations about far-off events sound dull, well, they are. Unfortunately, this letter reading and event discussing encompasses more than one-third of the book, and is ultimately my reason for a low rating. By the time Ilse’s personal adventures pick up, including her dabbles in magic, it is too little, too late.
Why should you read this book?
Despite the book’s problems, the prose in Passion Play is beautifully written, and Ilse holds immense promise as the heroine. If you think you can handle the slow pacing in the middle, you could do a lot worse than Passion Play.
Benni received a review copy of this book courtesy of Tor.