Therez Zhalina has lived a very sheltered life in Melnek. She is the daughter of a ambitious merchant who, unfortunately for the 15-year-old girl, has big plans for the family and business, whether Thereze likes it or not. And she doesn’t. Following a formal dinner, where Therez is introduced to Melnek society, the young girl is devastated to find out that her father has arranged her to be married to a cool and cruel man, Theodr Galt. Therez has dreams of her own. She wishes to travel to Duenne and attend university there. Basically, she wants to see the world. Her father’s plans would set her on a path on which she would have no control over her life. So she decides to leave without saying a word.
Taking what money she’s saved, she ends up gaining carriage out of Melnek with a caravan owner and his cohort of unsavoury fellow travellers. This is where things take a dark turn in Thereze’s young life. Most of her possessions have been stolen from her, and in order to stay on her journey she is forced to trade with the only thing she has left: her body. In a series of gruelling scenes, for the reader as well as Therez, the girl makes a choice to give up her body and innocence to her rapists — for that is what they are, regardless of the choice Therez makes. She is but a child, but now she’s little more than a sex slave. I found these sections of the story very hard to read.
When Therez eventually makes her escape, she ends up at a pleasure house run by Lord Raul Kosenmark, a duke who was once an advisor for the king. He, too, ran away from his responsibilities. Therez changes her name to Ilse, and is referred to this new name for the rest of the book. Raul offers her a position in his household once she’s physically well, and Ilse begins to form new friendships in the kitchen. Raul sees potential in her and so takes her on as his secretary. It is from this position that Ilse learns of what is going on in the world around her. There is more than politics at play here. There is magic everywhere, with some people being more gifted than others. There are plots, and there’s a war brewing. In the midst of all this, there is a sacred jewel that has gone missing, one that holds the key to power.
A number of things intrigue me about Passion Play. Author Claire O’Dell, whose work I’ve reviewed here before, has created a world that is not unlike Eastern Europe, with names and a magical language that almost Germanic. If I could posit a theory, the politics at play here are similar to what led to the outbreak of WWI. I could be wrong, but that’s how I read it. The countries that surround Ilse and Raul each have their own border controls and internal politics. Throw a sinister magician into the mix, and you have the spark for major bloodshed. The other volumes in the series will no doubt explore these complexities in greater detail. In Passion Play we’re given what information we need to know at this juncture. The system of magic has at its core, I do believe, a knowledge that one has lived a previous life. Reincarnation rears its head once more. I find this very fascinating.
I was impressed by the level of detail O’Dell put into her world-building. I’m a sucker for detail, and the author does not disappoint. Her supporting characters have good background stories and I have no doubt that characters we see in passing will pop up again in later books. I enjoyed this book, and while some readers will understandably balk at the level of sexual violence at the start, there is a pay-off towards the end. When Passion Play ends, neither Ilse nor Raul are the same people when we first meet them. They’ve both endured tragedy and loss of familial connection. Where this takes them, we will have to find out for ourselves in the next book, Queen’s Hunt.