Touchstone

Touchstone / Melanie Rawn

Touchstone is a different kind of fantasy novel. It’s not about saving the world or even about defeating some smaller evil. It’s instead about the performing arts, drug addiction, and abusive relationships.

For a book about performers struggling to make it, it was surprisingly difficult for me to read and I had to give up on Elsewhens, the sequel, halfway through as I didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with how intense it was at the same time as dealing with some seriously intense stuff in life.

Plot summary

The various stereotypical fantasy races have lived together and intermingled for so long that virtually no-one is a “true” elf or human or whatever. The world consists almost entirely of mixed-race people, with some appearing more like one race than another but no-one is “pure”.

Using magic for violence is forbidden. Instead, magic is used in the arts, especially in public performances where the performers work together to create spectacular images and even directly affect the emotions of the audience.

Cayden Silversun is a small-time performer with big-time aspirations. The problem is, his troupe lacks a “glisker”,the member responsible for evoking the magic that Cade prepares in glass withies. Enter the mostly-Elven Mieka, a young but extraordinarily powerful glisker who adds an element of iconoclasm to the group that singles out the group as a unique up-and-coming act.

So how is it?

It’s very good, but it’s also a somewhat experimental fantasy that has more in common with works like A scanner darkly than it does Lord of the rings.

As I mentioned above, it’s pretty intense. Cade has occasional glimpses of the future, which he uses to help shape the troupe into a major success. His visions also show him the potential darkness inside each member, especially himself and Mieka, who are both shown to be at risk of becoming domestic abusers. The troupe deals with the incredible stress of their profession by extensive use of drugs and alcohol.

This is very much a book about performers, and Rawn captures that lifestyle astoundingly well. She also does a great job portraying what makes successful acts successful, and the absolutely brutal work required to become successful and maintain that success. It’s hands-down the best portrayal of the performing arts I’ve ever read. The only other book that comes close is Ellison’s Spider kiss.

Touchstone is entirely character driven, which works very well here. The characters are well distinguished, each with their own talents and problems. Of particular note is Blye, an expert glassblower who is legally unable to produce functional pieces because of her gender and her struggles as an incredibly talented crafter who must pass off her work as her father’s. There are definite homoerotic undertones in Cade and Mieka’s relationship, but I ditched the series halfway through the second book so I don’t know if that gets developed at all.

Touchstone is the Spinal tap of fantasy novels. Not in that it’s humorous but in how accurately it reflects the experience of being a performer. Others have drawn close parallels between the various performing troupes and the rock bands of the 60s. What’s interesting is that although I’ve heard this comparison repeatedly, no-one seems to agree on which band is which troupe. To me, that shows the strength of Rawn’s evocation.

Recommendation

Touchstone is great but there are some issues that make me hesitant to recommend it outright.

First is it’s emotionally a pretty intense read. The nature of the plot is such that people who aren’t going to feel the emotional impact aren’t going to get much of anything out of this.

Second, it’s very heavily rooted in “performer culture” and as a result I’ve gotten feedback that the characters are “totally unbelievable” from people not familiar with the field. Those who are musicians, actors, dancers, whatever, will appreciate Rawn’s portrayal of a grueling field.

Third, Rawn doesn’t waste time with exposition. The nature and history of the world have to be discovered via context, so readers who aren’t okay not understanding the “rules” for the world will be frustrated. That’s a plus for me as I find that fantasy novels get bogged down when they end up explaining the ins and outs of how “magic” works, or about the history of its world, but Sanderson fans will howl.

So it’s something I recommend to more “mature” fantasy readers, especially those who work in the arts. It’s not an adventure story which will disappoint many fantasy fans and makes it a tough sell, but it’s powerful and worth the attempt. Apparently some people also find the vocabulary and dialect a little intense – I didn’t think so but it’s worth taking into consideration.

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