TITLE: Touchstone (Glass Thorns 01)
AUTHOR: Melanie Rawn
GENRE: Fiction, Fantasy
PUBLISHED: December 24, 2012
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
Theatre is a fascinating art. It combines so many arts together: literature, visual art, music, and acting. Combine all of these together in just the right proportions, and, well, magic happens. While it is true that television and film enjoy broader audiences than plays and musicals, “magic” is still the best word to describe the feeling viewers get when they watch a live performance that can be had no other way. Anyone who has ever had the good fortune to watch a play or musical live knows the magic being referred to: even watching a recording of the exact same performance will always pale in comparison to actually being there, in the audience, sharing the same air as the performers onstage. Because of this, theatre has not completely died out as an art form, despite the popularity of TV and movies.
It is this magic that Melanie Rawn attempts to capture and portray differently in the novel Touchstone, first in the Glass Thorns series. Set in a fantasy world that reads a lot like Renaissance England, it tells the story of Cayden “Cade” Silversun, a young tregetour out to make a name for himself with his friends, Jeska and Rafe - Jeska is a gifted masquer, while Rafe is the best fettler Cade knows. Unfortunately, they don’t yet have a glisker they can actually work with - until a chance meeting brings Mieka Windthistle into their sphere. Though Cade is leery of Mieka’s unpredictable personality, he decides to let the other young man perform with them - and finds out that Mieka is the most brilliant glisker he’s ever worked with. Despite his misgivings Cade brings Mieka into his troupe, and together the four of them decide to attempt the Trials: a contest held at the Royal Court where the best theatre troupes compete for glory and patronage. Under the name “Touchstone,” Cade and his friends are determined to beat the odds and become the best and most famous troupe in the land.
The first thing that becomes clear to the reader is that the author has drawn upon a rather specific model for the troupes at the heart of this story: that of the playing company so popular in England (and, to a lesser extent, in other parts of Europe) during the late 16th century and well into the 17th. The Elizabethan playing company, in particular, has a specific history and set of traditions that include patronage by wealthy nobles, command performances for the royal court, and the male-only nature of playing companies - elements that appear in the novel. Indeed, if the reader starts seeing shades of Shakespeare in Love and other fictional interpretations of William Shakespeare’s life and milieu, he or she would not be blamed for it at all. Indeed, I strongly suspect that the parallels are deliberate.
But unlike Shakespeare and his playing company, Cade and his troupe have access to magic, which they use not only to create special effects, but also to replace much of the costuming, makeup, stage props, and even some of the roles. But aside from those obvious magical touches, a skilled troupe can actually manipulate the emotions of the audience itself. The best troupes are the ones that can manipulate all that magic with skill and subtlety, such that the audience is transported to another place, time, or even experience entirely. In short, the author attempts to capture what happens when anyone encounters stories that touch them - which, in its turn, boils down to the power of art and stories as a whole. Take a look at this excerpt:
“… Some of the men watching, they just take, and that’s fine—they pay for an evening’s entertainment, and that’s a nice, tidy little transaction. There’s not one of them could ever complain he didn’t get his money’s worth. There’s some who end the evening actually thinking about what they’ve seen. Those are the most satisfying, in a way. We’ve got to them somehow, reached something, y’know?”
“Sometimes,” Cade said, “just as Rafe is letting everything fade, I get traces of… I’m not sure what it is. Echoes, maybe, of what they’ve just seen, things that linger not just because you and Rafe and Jeska are good at what you do, but because they want them to linger.”
“Do you ever sense the ones who are so surprised they can’t hardly think at all? They’ve just seen something they’ve never seen before, and it’s shook them so hard they’re just staggering inside. That’s gratifying, only it’s a bit worrying as well, because the next time they come to a show they’re going to expect the same thing, and that’s just not possible.” A little smile graced [Mieka’s] lips. …
“What else happens that I never notice?”
Mieka was abruptly serious again. “The ones who come out of it wanting to dream their own dreams. Whether they can, or end up sharing those are the things we’ll never know. But there’s a spark, and we lit it, and that’s one of the best feelings of all.”
“But the ones as break my heart—those are the ones who come to see your dreams because they used to have dreams of their own, and haven’t anymore. They want to remember what it was like before it all burned out.”
The power of art and stories to not only entertain but to move the heart and inspire the soul is an important theme of this novel. Though Cade, his troupe, and others like them have the ability to directly manipulate the emotions of their viewers, whereas Shakespeare (and all artists and writers in reality) could do nothing quite so spectacular, the fact remains that art and stories can influence the way people think and feel - and with that comes a certain onus of responsibility. To be sure, the artist or storyteller is under no obligation to please anyone, but it is also important that he or she understands what he or she is saying via his or her art and/or stories.
This is especially important today. Now, more than ever, there is growing awareness that no artist or storyteller can be truly “apolitical,” that a disavowal of politics is in itself a political stand, and therefore artists and storytellers need to take responsibility for the things they put out into the world. To be sure, interpretation will always be up to the individual, but the fact remains that the artist or storyteller’s output is the base upon which that interpretation will stand. This means that, whether they are aware of it or not (though nowadays a lack of awareness is rarely an excuse, much less a defence), artists and storytellers shape the mindset of their audience - and with that comes a certain degree of responsibility and obligation they need to seriously consider.
Now, while the above theme is important, there are many more woven throughout this novel that are not fully explored because this is only the first book in a series of five. If this novel is anything, it is setup: getting the stage ready for the bigger, grander things that happen further down the line. This also means that not much of anything happens in this novel, at least in terms of grand plot events. Despite what the book’s blurb says, this is the farthest thing from a standalone novel, since it is quite clear that this is all set-up for what happens in later books.
This means, therefore, that this is a slower, quieter tale, more focused on getting to know the characters and the world they live in, as well as reading about how they interact with each other and change as a result. This is especially true for Cade and Mieka - indeed, the novel is mostly about the two of them trying to get along with each other and learning each other’s quirks and coping with said quirks.
For my part, I found this getting-to-know-you process mostly enjoyable, though it must be said that I did find Cade and Mieka remarkably irritating as well. Mieka’s lack of forethought chafes at my sensibilities, while Cade’s unwillingness to just talk to other people makes me want to smack some sense into him. So much trouble could be avoided if only Mieka would think before doing anything, and if only Cade would just be honest about what’s going on in his head instead of trying to keep all his troubles to himself - but then, if that were the case, there would be no story now, would there? I also have to remind myself that these characters are mostly teenagers themselves, and so cannot really be expected to act any better than the average college student - which I was, once, a long time ago, and so cannot really judge them. But whether or not I like them as people hardly matters. They are good characters, and that is what counts.
However, despite the enjoyable aspects of this novel, there are some parts of it that do not sit well with me at all: specifically, certain aspects of the worldbuilding. While the concept and the characters are a great joy to read about, the world itself does not do it any favours. The pseudo-European setting, as well as the mind-boggling number of fantasy races, some of which do not make a lot of sense (how can a Wizard be considered a separate race entirely from Human?), are not particularly interesting, and add very little to the story beyond explaining why certain characters are good at certain things and bad at others.
I am also not entirely pleased with the near-absence of any strong plot in this novel. To be sure, there are very strong hints of what the next book might be about, but that’s for the next book, not this one. While the travels and travails of Cade and the rest of Touchstone make for pleasant-enough reading, it does not have sufficient heft to carry a book on its own. A part of me thinks that this book could have been half as long and still been fun to read.
Overall, Touchstone is sufficiently entertaining and engaging, for the most part. The concept of magical theatre is appealing enough to get the reader hooked, and the characters are fascinating enough to make he or she want to keep on reading to its end. However, readers might find themselves far less invested in the world itself, or in the fact that there are only hints of a plot that really only gets going in the next book, not in this one. I am interested in reading the next book in the series, but I am rather glad to finally leave this one behind.