Melanie Rawn, Touchstone, ISBN: 9780765363473, Tor, in paperback December 2012.
Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
It’s been over a decade – fifteen years, if we’re counting each and every one – since Melanie Rawn last published a solo work of second-world fantasy, The Mageborn Traitor. Before the long hiatus in her career, Rawn’s track record leaned to the sprawling family-saga, with a knack for believable interpersonal relationships and narratives that take years to come to ultimate fruition. Touchstone, the first in a new series and a new milieu, could not possibly live up to the weight of expectation this reviewer placed upon it. To its credit, it is a book that disappoints far less than it could have.
Cayden Silversun is a young man with ambitions for the theatre. He’s a tregetour, a play-maker who fills glass withies with the magic necessary for the rest of a four-member troupe to perform: the fettler, who controls the force of magic; masquer, who plays the roles; and glisker, who brings the visions to life. In Cade’s life, these are his longtime friends Rafe and Jeska, but when they’re joined by Mieka – quick-witted, laughing-tempered, full of mischief and the best glisker they’ve ever worked with – their troupe comes together: Touchstone, destined for a coveted place on the touring circuit and a place in theatre history.
Rawn excels at character, and the supporting characters here are excellent, well-fleshed out, with histories and personalities of their own. Rafe, with his baker parents and steady girlfriend; Jeska, the son of a charlady who (until the theatre troupe kicks off properly) does book-keeping to earn extra money; Mieka, with his extensive family and cheerful, energetic arrogance. Outside the theatre, Cade’s little brother Dery and his mother Lady Jaspiela are drawn in strong, vivid lines. So is Cade’s childhood friend Blye, daughter of a glassblower, who’s doing her best to keep the business going in the face of her father’s ill-health and Guild disapproval of female craftspeople.
It is a pity that among all these interesting people, for the most part we’re stuck with Cade’s viewpoint. Not to put too fine a point on it, Cayden Silversun is a bit of a sour ass, determined to win recognition of his own achievements in the theatre that he will never receive from his family, and perpetually troubled by visions of the future which he cannot stop and can only marginally affect. These visions intensify when Mieka enters his life and the theatre group takes off: you’d be forgiven for assuming there’s something more than merely platonic to their relationship, thanks to the way Cade reacts when the visions show Touchstone without their glisker or portend ill things for Mieka.
In his seldom-punctured self-absorption, Cayden, while complex and well-drawn, isn’t the most likeable of protagonists. This makes it all the more noticeable that Touchstone‘s narrative is wandering and diffuse, with no structure to lend in form other than Touchstone-the-troupe’s trials and travels. When you enjoy the protagonist’s company, it’s easy not to consider this a flaw: when you’re wondering when the protagonist is going to stop being quite so annoying, it becomes a more pressing issue.
If Rawn were a less talented writer, my reaction to Cayden would no doubt have been less strong. The magic is innovative, the theatrical focus entertaining, and the prose unobtrusively readable. Were it not for my disgruntlement with Touchstone‘s protagonist, I’d have little hesitation recommending it. But the fact remains, I am disgruntled.