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Passion Play by Beth Bernobich

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Many years ago I read a draft version of the first several chapters of this novel via an online workshopping group. Rough and and unfinished as it was, it affected me so profoundly that I dreamed about one of the grimmer scenes. As a result, when I discovered that Goodreads was conducting a contest to give away copies of the finished version, I knew at once that I wanted to read it.

When I won a copy, I struggled between the urge to read it as fast as I could to find out what happened and the desire to make it last. Having read the earlier draft, I found it interesting to see the changes in the finished product.

Passion Play is the story of Therez, a merchant's daughter who is betrothed by her father to a prominent man whom she finds hard and cruel. Determined not to be his permanent victim, she flees her father's house and takes the pseudonym of Ilse so that she can make her way in the world, only to discover the hard way that she knows nothing about how harsh and cruel the outside world can be.

In the draft I originally read, the story began with Therez deciding to flee rather than submit to the marriage her father has arranged for her. In the finished novel the author has added several scenes which move the beginning backward in story time. The first, in which Therez plays the word game with another young woman, also helps ease the reader into the world. As Therez struggles to beat Klara in this game of chained word associations, we get several important bits of information about the world, particularly the myth of Lir and Toc and the creation of the sun and moon, with hints that behind the mythological figures lies an actuality that plays an important part in their history. We also get to see that Therez is intelligent and resourceful, but also sheltered and lacking in worldly knowledge, strengths and weaknesses that will be important in the course of the novel.

And then we have the social event in which we get to meet her promised husband and see for ourselves what sort of man he is. As a result, it's less easy to dismiss her as foolish and impulsive or acting out of childish pique when she strikes out on her own, and particularly given her pathetic ideas of what constitutes preparing herself for such a journey. In her haste to get out of the city before her absence from her bed is noticed, she takes the first likely-looking caravan she finds, never stopping to question anyone about the reputation of its organizers or anything but the fee she must pay to be taken to the distant city where she has some vague notion of making a new life for herself.

At first caravan master Alarik Brandt seems reasonable enough, but once they are away from the city and Ilse is committed to the trip, he begins to change for the worse. First he claims that he underestimated the payments he'd need to convey her to her destination. When she pays without complaint, it seems to please him -- but only for a little while before the knowledge that she can bear the additional burden inflames his greed and he wrings more and more from her.

The sequence makes me think of the process known as grooming, by which abusers bring a victim into their grasp. When a pedophile grooms a child to be victimized, the process often involves making the child feel special, and thus indebted to the perpetrator and less likely to question what is done to him or her. By contrast, when an abuser grooms an adult victim, it often involves systematically cutting the person off from resources by which she could extract herself from the situation, including information that could contradict the line the abuser is feeding the victim. One by one alternative options are taken away until the victim is trapped without recourse, and often in such a way to leave the victim believing, I deserve to be in this situation.

Once Brandt has successfully closed his net around Ilse, confiscating as stolen all her own funds and leaving her with nothing to pay her way, he puts her to work as a sex slave for his men. When one of those men proves to still have a working moral compass and decides to free her from duress vile, he is outwitted and punished, and Brandt redoubles his guard over her.

Just when her situation seems hopeless, Ilse receives aid from an unexpected source. This time it does not fail her and she makes good her escape into the countryside, where she encounters a family traveling to the city. Not the one she'd chosen, but it will suffice. They offer to introduce her to associates within the city and get her work, but after her horrific experience she no longer trusts her judgment in choosing companions. Furthermore, she wants to prove herself by gaining her place by her own efforts and on her own merits, not as the result of the generosity of a sympathetic stranger. So she takes some supplies and strikes out on her own.

Thus begins yet another nightmare, in which she finds only rejection in all her efforts to find work in the absence of connections and recommendations. The longer she goes without income or its prospect, the more desperate her situation becomes. Finally, sick and hungry, she falls victim to yet another predator.

And then she is rescued yet again, nursed back to health in a fine house. It belongs to Raul, a handsome and cultured man of many secrets. He operates a house of pleasure, a high-end brothel, but there is evidence that other business is conducted here.

Raul does not want Ilse's gratitude, for he does not wish to bind her with chains of moral and emotional debt. But he offers her a position in his kitchens, and thus an opportunity to prove herself as a reliable worker and thus earn a position more in accordance with her abilities.

And thus begins a section that I found intensely problematical. After the author had done such a splendid job in her portrayal of sexual violence and predation, avoiding all the standard misconceptions and the victim-blaming tropes that reduce so many portrayals of rape into cheap thrills, I was very disappointed in the handling of the subject of bullies and bullying. In particular, I was bothered by the way in which bullying became conflated with the rite of passage by which a newcomer is integrated into an established group by a series of petty ordeals such as ridiculous errands and absurd chores. I think Michael Z Williamson handled things much better in his freshman novel Freehold, in which he had Kendra deal with the bully only after she'd successfully passed through basic training and proven herself as a member of the Freehold armed services.

Maybe I'm overreacting on what is one small flaw in an otherwise magnificent piece of Secondary World fantasy, the first of a trilogy that promises to tell a monumental tale of change and self-discovery. Part of it is personal, the way in which that sequence brought to mind all the hleppy and ultimately useless advice adult authority figures offered me in my own struggles to survive bullying, all delivered as if the problem were trivially easy to deal with if only I would apply myself to the problem instead of perpetually whining about being mistreated and wanting to be rescued from my problems and handed happiness all wrapped up with a pretty bow.

But there's also the larger problem that, much as the standard rape tropes diminish and trivialize the actual harm done to the victims and leave society with a false view of the nature of the problem and what should be done to reduce the incidence of the crime of sexual assault, these standard bully tropes minimize the severity of the damage done by bullies and perpetuate a narrative by which bullying is just a part of life to be endured, and that overcoming bullying can be an uplifting rite of passage that empowers. Furthermore, it reinforces the common notion that bullying is a form of legitimate peer pressure, a message to the victim of UR RONG, and that the proper response is for the victim to change so that they aren't RONG any more, which excuses and legitimates bullying.

However problematic the resolution of that segment may be, it does move Ilse up to a responsible position within Raul's household, and for the first time she is respected for her skills and achievements rather than as a sort of quasi-possession to be bartered in an advantageous manner. In this position she learns many things, some fascinating, others tragic, about the household in which she now lives.

But all good things must end, and Ilse comes to the point where she can no longer move forward while remaining sheltered within familiar walls. Thus we have an ending which feels more like a beginning, which is appropriate for the first volume of a trilogy.

Review posted July 24, 2012

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