Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Microreview [book]: Touchstone, by Melanie Rawn

A rather boring bromance teetering on the edge of yaoi/BL

Rawn, Melanie. Touchstone. Tor, 2012.

Note: see that dragon on the cover? Total misdirection--it's a 'stage' dragon, not a real one. Thanks for finally driving home the lesson that some books really shouldn't be judged by their covers :(

When I was growing up I read a few books by Melanie Rawn. I'm embarrassed to admit that I remember nary a thing from them—except for their covers, which had dragons. And what little child doesn't love dragons? Fantasy literature with dragon riders and princesses and whatnot was awesome to my little mind. Even now, as an adult (ish), there's a certain romance to such tales, in the sense that I still love movies like Willow despite the fact that, objectively, Willow (or as I like to think of it, LOTR-lite!) leaves a lot to be desired.
And that brings us to Touchstone, which has exactly none of the features I used to love (and still feel nostalgia for today) about fantasy. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course, but in this case, it's not much of a good thing either. There are some intriguing aspects to the story; it's startlingly unconventional, for instance precisely by lacking dragons (though there is a princess, who seems to be kind of a horrible person), and has an interesting racio-ethnic back-story to the world Rawn has created. Everybody seems to have a bit of Elf, Wizard (since when did a profession get to be a race? In the U.S. we've got Caucasians, African-Americans, Asians, Plumbers,, on second thought, we really don't, Rawn!), Goblin and Human in them, as well as a few rarer races. However, instead of a straightforward swords and sorcery tale, we get a magical theater troupe on the road (literally, for much of the book) to success. Rawn goes into quite a bit of detail on the mechanics of this theatrical style (which uses magical glass jars called 'withies' filled with emotive magic that various magic-users release and then distribute to the audience, controlling exactly what those watching feel, and how strongly), and it does actually sound pretty awesome. I was impressed that Rawn departed so dramatically (pun intended!) from mainstream fantasy here.
But that's also a problem: to me, 'fantasy' as a genre doesn't necessarily have to have adventurous quests, or dragons, or sword-fighting, or (consummated) romance, but surely it should have at least some of those, for sheer entertainment's sake if nothing else. Touchstone is 0 for 4 action/romance-wise, but (problem two) it gets a perfect score in the BL (boy's love) sub-genre.
What is boy's love (or, as it's known in Japan, 'yaoi'), you ask? It's a story, almost always written and consumed (that's fancy-talk for 'read'!) by young—and generally heterosexual—women, about two smoking hot boy-toys whose sultry looks conceal, to rip off High Fidelity, a deep ocean of emotion just below the surface. These boys, often despite protestations of heterosexuality themselves, find themselves magnetically drawn to each other and begin in some cases a Platonic (ironic since Plato is thought to have fancied boys!), in others an x-rated love affair. There are all sorts of explanations for why women would like reading (and writing) stories about sensitive men who fall in love with each other as true equals, but whatever the reason, Rawn has definitely taken the story in a BL direction. Teenage dramaturgists Cayden and Mieka have a stormy though technically unconsummated bromance, complete with caressing, spooning, and all sorts of other physical contact, but the physical side is far less important than the emotional: each is, to the other, the single most important person, without whom life loses its savor, and the narrative is chock-a-block filled with them talking/yelling at each other, sharing their feelings, etc. In fact, that's pretty much the entire story—there are no duels, no wars other than of words, no events of any kind other than theatrical performances along their path to rising fame, and no other relationships of any real note.
It's all very touching, I suppose, but I've been spoiled by...shall we say rather more eventful fantasy, and have come to expect that stories I read contain something other than oceans of sensitivity. If anything, judging Touchstone by the generic conventions of fantasy is a mistake: it belongs firmly in the realm of (b)romance. And judged as such, for anyone who is really into the idea of reading about two boys finding in each other their Great Love and becoming emotional soul-mates, this book, the first of a series apparently, would absolutely blow your mind. But this reader was hoping for swords and mayhem and dragons and world-ending peril—more than I was hoping for an account of boys spooning, anyway!

The Math

Objective assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for shedding fantasy's genre conventions to go in an entirely new direction

Penalties: -1 for having that direction be BL, or as I've cleverly renamed it, 'boring lame'.

Nerd coefficient: 5/10 "Equal parts good and bad."

[See more about our scoring system—and thus why getting a 5/10 isn't as bad as it might sound—here.]

Zhaoyun, while not a huge fan of bromances, is a self-proclaimed aficionado in the more conventional fantasy and sci fi departments, and has been a main cast member (to continue the drama theme) of Nerds of a Feather since early 2013.