Passion Play

by Sean Stewart

Cover image

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: 1992
Printing: December 1993
ISBN: 0-441-65241-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 194

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Diane is a shaper: an empath, a sort of telepath, who sees emotions and the actions of others in the form of patterns and stories that she is nearly compelled to follow. She uses that skill as an investigator, a semi-official adjunct to the police who can read crime scenes and motives and hunt down criminals with uncanny ability. That makes her almost socially acceptable, but a shaper is still not something it's safe to be, something best kept hidden. Diane's world is one of theocracy, of dominance by aggressive religion, and even shapers working with the police are not exactly okay.

This is Sean Stewart's first novel. He's since gone on to write many other books, one of which I've read and quite enjoyed (Nobody's Son) and another (Galveston) that won several awards, although he's probably most famous for his work on the ilovebees ARG. Passion Play won a minor award itself: the Aurora for the best Canadian SF novel of the year. I found it surprising as a first novel, since it's sharp, focused, and very short. Usually first novels are stuffed to the gills with ideas and plot, as if material had built up for years and exploded in the first book. Passion Play doesn't have that problem; if anything, it errs on the side of telling too little.

This is, at its heart, a mystery. A famous actor died in the middle of a play. It was possibly suicide, possibly an accident, and possibly murder; the events of the death are quite ambiguous. But the actor is very important in Redemptionist politics, which warrants an investigation, and then Diane's shaper instincts start finding a pattern and a story in the death. The rest of the cast and crew form the obvious set of suspects, and have the normal mystery novel variety of flaws, foibles, strong personalities, and possible motives.

I'm not much of a mystery novel reader, and to be honest I had some trouble tracking all of the characters and remembering Diane's suspicions about each one. But the details of the mystery are less important to this book than Diane herself. Shapers are not exactly stable. The patterns they see are all-consuming, the experience of others' strong emotions acts like a sort of drug, and shapers can burn themselves out. They can fall into a spiral of seeking stronger and stronger emotions until they can't feel anything at all. That's the core conflict of the book: Diane is slowly losing herself. She has a tenuous existence at the outskirts of a society that has inculcated her with an inflexible set of religious beliefs and an uncompromising attitude towards law and justice, but it's not a stable existence, she knows it, and she doesn't know what to do about it. She knows that the pattern of this particular death is deep and powerful, but she can't stay away from it.

This is an unusual, and sometimes disturbing, focus for a story. It's risky, unconventional, and doesn't quite work. I think some of the failure is because of first novel problems, but most of it is due to character problems.

In the first novel problems category, Passion Play is a bit too choppy and a bit too disjointed. I think Stewart was trying hard to keep the story focused, fast-moving, and tight, but the introduction of the world background is not particularly smooth, and Diane's first-person account of her emotional state is a bit too labored. The plot wants to build in a smooth arc towards its climax, but the writing and scene-setting jerks and jumps instead of flowing.

But the larger problem for me is that there aren't enough interesting characters in this book; specifically, there aren't enough to show all sides of Diane's character. Stewart tries, by introducing Jim early in the book to serve essentially as Diane's friend (and she's desperately in need of one), but he's too much of a non-entity. He serves some plot purposes, but he doesn't have a strong enough voice and character to hold his ground against Diane and balance her obsessive internal monologue. And, other than Jim, all the other characters in the book (with the possible exception of the murder victim) are playing bit roles. They're not bad characters, but they don't feel fully real to either Diane or to the reader. It's very easy to put them into boxes that they never break out of. This does support the feeling of narrative inevitability about some parts of the book, but I think it would have been stronger with more conflict, more open challenging of Diane's perspective.

I would characterize Passion Play as interesting but flawed, and ultimately a minor work. I'm not sorry I read it, but neither would I have missed much if I'd gone through life without reading it. It has a few interesting ideas, and a bravely unconventional narrative resolution, but it felt choppy and off-balance. Unless you love Stewart's writing and want to read everything he wrote, or unless you (like me) has a quirk about reading all award winners, this is probably best skipped over in favor of Stewart's later work.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-10-24

Last modified and spun 2015-07-06