Touchstone by Melanie Rawn: A Review

Melanie Rawn’s Touchstone is a peculiar and intriguing fantasy novel. I came across it quite by accident, when my housemate sidled into my room and said, ‘Hey, do you have a copy of the Night Circus, and can I borrow it?’

‘I do!’ I said happily and, ‘If I can find it.’ It wasn’t on either of my bookcases, or the many piles of books on my desk, or by the bed, or downstairs, or in the large box of books I had in the corner. A box which I was delighted to discover had a whole range of novels I’d been meaning to read and entirely forgotten about. Probably because they were in a box. And there, nestled amid the steampunk, epic fantasy, magic realism, horror, and general literature, was Touchstone.

My housemate didn’t get the Night Circus sadly (turns out I loaned it to a friend over a year ago and he still has it), but I did come away with another book to add to the bunch I’m reading now. You’ll note that when listing genres, I conspicuously left out Touchstone’s and that’s because I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. I guess the closest subgenre is “High Fantasy”, but even then, that doesn’t feel quite right.

Touchstone is the story of Caden Silversun, a part Elf, part Fae, part human Wizard obsessed with the theatre. Though his artistic leanings dismay his high-born parents, Caden persists in forming a troupe, and taking to the road intending to become the best and earn his right to tour the Royal Circuit, the highest achievement in theatre.

Theatre, in this world, is a live magical performance incorporating projected sights, sounds, and even emotion. A typical troupe is composed of four members: there’s the tregetour (Caden), the playwright who also imbues glass canisters or ‘withies’ with the magic necessary to perform the play. The glisker (Mieka), who manipulates the magic into vision and emotion. The masquer (Jeska), or actor, who performs the roles, and the fettler (Rafe), who controls the output of magic to ensure the audience is never hurt by the forces at play.

It’s an ingenious system, and a joy to read about. Touchstone’s great strength is its complex, original worldbuilding and magic system, paired with interesting and well-developed characters. So, why is Touchstone a little difficult to categorise? Well, there’s no evil lord. No magic prophecy. No invading armies or triumphant hero. No world domination. No real antagonist even. In fact, if I had to summarise this book in a way we could understand, I’d say it’s almost like the fantasy equivalent of a documentary following the Rolling Stones from inception to fame. 

Of course, for most readers, this might be a bit difficult to swallow. We’re so used to having sides drawn early on, to the through-line action of the Three Act narrative structure leading to minor and major climaxes followed by a resolution. Melanie Rawn has very much side-stepped all of that to craft a meticulous little character-driven story. The drama is plentiful – for all that there’s a lack of sword fights – this is, after all, about theatre and as such, the battling egos of four brilliant young men. Yes, men. Rawn establishes that women in this world are very much second-class citizens and are unable to perform or even attend the theatre in public.

This gender inequality is remarked upon and is a consistent part of the story thanks to Caden’s childhood friend Blye, a glassmaker who creates his withies, despite it being illegal. Women are not allowed to be official Guild-certified artisans, so they must go to elaborate lengths to keep her actions hidden – easy enough while she was operating under her ailing father’s name but with his passing, increasingly difficult. That said, it is a minor thread in the narrative and never feels like strident preaching or authorial soapboxing – rather, it is a complex issue which all the characters grapple with in their society.

The main suspense of this novel lies in the interactions between tregetour Caden and his equally brilliant glisker, Mieka. Between them is an undeniable chemistry, but it isn’t the sparks of like-minded artists so much as the clash of total opposites: Caden, the lonely, restrained aristocrat burdened by the physical mish-mash of his mixed heritage is nothing like the wild, beautiful young Elfling, whose mixed race has only served to make him even prettier. The racial makeup of this kingdom is fascinating. On the face of it, it sounds like it could be any old generic fantasy world, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The populace is so racially intermixed as to make the notion of being a pureblood-anything totally ridiculous.

Nor is it merely a question of blood percentages or aesthetic, the genetic traits of each race carry through: you might have straight human teeth, Elf ears, and the body of a troll, with the blood and power of a Wizard. Each race has particular attributes and associated powers or abilities meaning that most people are at the mercy of an eclectic genetic lottery. Caden, for instance, while a mix of Elf, Human, and Wizard, has a rare streak of Fae that curses him with foresight.

As though it’s not enough to be besieged by visions of potential futures – futures he actively tries to change – he also has to deal with Mieka’s drug use. All the young men in Touchstone are fairly ribald drinkers but none of them are addicts like Mieka, whose behaviour becomes increasingly erratic as the group’s fame rises. His total brilliance, however, means they must bear with it, and attempt to compensate for his unpredictability. What’s more, Caden has glimpsed the future in which knows that should they lose the elf, the group would break apart, never to be remade.

What follows is Caden’s desperate attempts to curtail his fury and prevent that future from ever happening, not out of any great love for Mieka – at least not at first – but to keep his ambition alive. While he is at times successful, there is an increasing sense of inevitability as that particular future returns to haunt him. His inability to accept his fate is a product of his control-freak nature and he continues to meddle, sometimes actively by changing a small detail here or there or sometimes by not acting at all. Either way, the future marches toward him inexorably and he is faced with twin truths: his success as an artist is assured, Touchstone will be famed throughout the land for at least a decade, and always, it seems, he must lose Mieka, and the group fractures and is destroyed by it.

At its heart, this book is a treatise on the life of an artist, the struggle between wanting to be the absolute best at your craft, to bring dreams to life and entertain others, and the price of success. I’ve never seen drug addiction depicted so thoughtfully in fantasy, via the use of thorns doused in particular powders engendering different highs, and the damage it can wreak both on the user and their friends and family. Some of the futures depicted are incredibly bleak and Caden’s helpless heartbreak is difficult to bear but also very sympathetic.

Now, this book won’t be for everyone. In fact, I’m sure it will resonate only with a small percentage of the fantasy reading public – it’s slow, and occasionally meandering. Nor does it take the time to describe in easy-to-understand exposition the various factors at play, instead trusting you to just go along with the ride and figure it out as you go. While that’s generally a trait to be admired, even for me, a die-hard fantasy reader, it was at times difficult to figure out how everything worked, a fact not helped by dialect-heavy dialogue.

While one of its strengths is its intriguing characters and their changing dynamics, their interaction is sometimes overwrought and melodramatic – to be expected with the theatre I suppose – and so much time spent with four brash young men can be trying, though mostly, it surprisingly isn’t. One of the most refreshing aspects of the series is its frank depiction of sex, or the pursuit of it. Fantasy as a genre has a long and mixed history on sexuality but here, it’s just another facet of life interwoven in their adventures.

Overall, I think if you take the time to read this book, you won’t be disappointed. It’s a far cry from your run-of-the-mill fantasy, with its unique magic, world, and racial makeup, alongside relatable gender and sexual issues explored by a diverse cast beset with small interpersonal dramas. This mostly slice-of-life fantasy is a charming read, however flawed, and is often thought-provoking. Recommended for those happy to bypass epic action and delve into an interesting new world.

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