Melanie Rawn’s Touchstone is the first book in her planned GLASS THORNS trilogy. Unfortunately, it was a struggle to get through and I finished it with little interest in continuing the story, though it did pick up a bit toward the end.
Touchstone is sort of The Commitments meets Dragon Realm. In Rawn’s world, the major form of entertainment is a sort of theatrical performance which makes use of magic to convey a more full sensory and emotional experience. The performing groups are made up of members, each of which plays a specific role (a glisker, a tregetour, etc.) and if they are good enough they get to Trials (a judged performance at the Court), and then they can go out on Circuit and move up in the world.
Touchstone follows one such group — the eponymous Touchstone — from the very beginning, mostly through the eyes of their writer/tregetour Cayden Silversun, as Cade and the two friends he’s been performing with add a new glisker — a near full-blood Elf named Mieka. Soon they’re pulling them in at the local bar, then the local theater, and then they’re invited to the big time: the Trials, where they’ll perform at the Court.
Matters are complicated by several factors. One is that Cade has prescient visions which torment him as he tries to figure out ways to avoid the less-than-pleasant futures he occasionally catches glimpses of, never knowing if they are actual futures or merely possible ones, and always fearing that he’ll unfairly manipulate his friends to selfishly avoid his own unpleasant future. He also has parental issues. Mieka has some drug and drinking issues. And Cade’s longtime female friend ends up in some difficulty due to her father’s death and the inherent sexism of the culture. And now and then issues of racism and class arise as they move through the various tiers of society and mingle among various mixed groups of Elves, Wizards, Trolls, Goblins, and the like.
I had several issues with Touchstone. The beginning I found quite off-putting due to lots of unfamiliar vocabulary and a too-unclear sense of just what it was Cade and his group do and what the differences are between their specific roles. I usually don’t have an issue with strange vocabulary (in fact, I think I may even have praised its early use in China Miéville’s Embassytown), but here the vocabulary wasn’t simply background or atmosphere — it was the major undergirding of the plot and character and so it felt more of a barrier. These are the same reasons why the lack of clarity on the art form itself bothered me so much. And to be honest, I wouldn’t say I ever felt wholly, solidly clear on just what went into the shows, which were themselves a bit flat and disappointing both in terms of their plots and the manner in which they were conveyed. The lack of clarity was also an issue with all the mixed races, which seemed to want to play an important role in terms of the abilities the characters had due to their mixed blood and also how they sometimes responded to or were responded to by other characters depending on their ancestry, but again, it never felt fully, cleanly clear.
The plotting was very episodic as the group grows in stature and moves out into the world, and I never felt very invested in what was happening to them. Partly because of the above problems; partly because of the episodic nature of the narrative (“they did this then they did this then they did this”); partly because that episodic nature never felt in the service of a larger, overarching narrative arc or theme (the “where are they going and why am I reading about them going there” question); and finally in part because of the narrative choices, which leaned overmuch on summary rather than scene. This had the effect of distancing both the action and characters and lending the novel an overall flat feel. The other problem is that the storyline behind the fantasy elements was pretty familiar. You pretty much know what you’re going to get in a “band story”: there will be fights over creative differences, fights over someone being too drunk or too stoned or too hung over to perform, someone will be the girl-getter, someone will be the one that threatens to “poison” the band, they’ll have some jealous or competitive interaction with other such bands trying to move up, there will be some broken glassware, and so on.
I didn’t care much about the characters, wasn’t grabbed by the style, was disappointed by the performance art, and had seen the plot before. As one might guess, this all made the novel a true struggle to finish. Prior to Touchstone I’d zipped through three novels in four days; this one took me a week to finish as I kept finding reasons to put it down and other reasons to not pick it up. Had it not been a review book, I’m sure I would have stopped and in fact, this was the first review book in a long, long time that I seriously considered giving a Did Not Finish. Not recommended.