Touchstone, by Laurie King

Cayla Kluver is a teenager; she completed this novel, thumb as well as high school, sildenafil at fifteen years of age. She intends to take this year off to finish the second half of the duology and to promote both works, and then she will go to college to study creative writing. Like most writers, she’s been writing as long as she can remember. She acknowledges the great amounts of help she got with this novel not only from her mother, who shares copyright and edited the work, but her English teacher, who helped her with a draft of this book for a large part of a semester. Ms. Kluver says that she was inspired by playing an epic fantasy video game, and wishing that it went the way she wanted it to go, rather than the authors. Subsequently, Forsooth Publishing was born, to promote Cayla’s work.

Alera is the Crown Princess of Hytanica; whoever she marries will become King and ruler of Hytanica, so therefore she has little choice in her mate. Steldor, her father’s favorite, inspires great loathing in Alera, and she will do nearly anything to avoid him. The rival for her affections is, of all things, a Hytanican boy named Narian who was kidnapped by a nearby country called Cokyria very soon after his birth; he returned to them at sixteen years of age and is an enigma to all involved. Why did Cokyria kidnap forty-nine baby boys that year, and only keep one of them (alive)? What are Cokyria’s plans for Hytanica, and why was he allowed to return? Most of all, is there any way that Alera can avoid marrying the arrogant Steldor?

I have only read one other book by an author this young, to my knowledge (In the Forests of the Night by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, which, incidentally, I hated, but I mean to read some of her more recent works before I write her off completely), and I must say that I am very impressed by Ms. Kluver’s ability to sustain a plot over a 440-page book. Her grasp of pacing was fairly good, and she displays some real talent with description. Overall, I could have stood a little less description of people’s clothing, but the book is aimed at a demographic that doesn’t (apparently) include me. Girls who are maybe only a few years out of the Disney Princesses age group will eat the descriptions up and be clamoring for more.

Ms. Kluver created a good deal of characters in her story, and a couple of them even stood out as having interesting depths. Princess Alera, perhaps not so much — while I liked her, she didn’t have very many defining character traits. Steldor, on the other hand, had conflicting enough actions and behavior that I even found him significantly more interesting than Narian. While he was cast as the ‘bad guy’ in the book, when it came down to it, he really did want Princess Alera to be happy, and I seemed to get the impression that he really had no idea how to go about doing that other than trying to impress her with his military prowess. I understood that Alera didn’t like him because she thought he was arrogant, but I didn’t actually see enough of his arrogance in any sort of hurtful way that would fuel her burning dislike of him. I actually thought he had a lot of promise.

Overall, this is definitely a great achievement for Ms. Kluver; I do generally think that the actual mechanics of her writing would be improved by a quick read-through of Stephen King’s On Writing (especially the section on tagging), but her grasp of grammar, sentence structure, and vocabulary are significantly above average for any fifteen-year-old I’ve known. (I would produce a piece of writing from when I was fifteen, but fortunately I burned it all.) The most frustrating thing about the book is perhaps that I only have the first volume of it. I do not know when exactly in 2009 Allegiance, the second volume, will be published, but I would be interested in reading it to complete the story.
Review by DP

Laurie R. King is best known for her two long-running mystery series, symptoms
one set in the England in the Roaring Twenties and starring Mary Russell as Sherlock Holmes’ feminist wife and the other set in modern-day San Francisco and focusing on lesbian detective Kay Martinelli. In addition, King writes the occasional stand-alone novel—most recently, Touchstone. Common to all of King’s writing are vividly written and painstakingly researched portraits of place and time. While her series focus on more conventional mystery plots, the majority of King’s standalone novels are psychological meditations on obsession, integrity and the cost of the human search for truth.

In Touchstone, King returns to England in the 1920’s, this time in the midst of the economic and political disruption that preceded the General Strike of 1926. Harris Stuyvesant, an American federal agent, has traveled to England on the tail of an anarchist bomber responsible for crippling his brother and killing his fiancée. In order to gain access to his potential bomber, Stuyvesant is led to Bennett Grey, also called Touchstone. After being nearly killed by a shell in World War II, Grey has developed an intense sensitivity to the cues and details of his environment, making him a human lie detector. Grey’s former lover, Lady Laura Hurleigh, is currently involved with Stuyvesant’s suspected bomber, and Stuyvesant uses Grey to infiltrate the high-class anarchist’s social circle. Unfortunately, a sinister operative named Aldous Carstairs is trying to coerce Grey into his service, while simultaneously plotting a Machiavellian overthrow of the British government.

If the plot seems complex, it is; King has situated the story in the midst of a turbulent time in British politics, and adding the supernatural element of a character who can read truth with a touch could make for a too-crowded story. King’s masterful evocation of detail and skilled prose, however, make both the potential anarchist revolution and the human lie detector go down smoothly, allowing the majority of the novel to focus on King’s major themes: the seductive power of a terrorist ideology and the difference between conviction and goodness. In Touchstone, many characters are convinced of the truth of their beliefs, but as Stuyvesant discovers, this only makes them more dangerous. The explosive denouement begs the question of whether a radical can be right and demands an immediate second reading to watch King lay the groundwork for her final twist.

If there is any weakness in this story, it lies in King’s intense focus on the feelings, thoughts and reactions of her characters, which results in a somewhat weakened plot. Touchstone is less a mystery than a character study of fanaticism, in which the great question is not who the bomber is, but what the drive to bomb means. The main characters’ personal involvements with one another and with various ideologies take center stage, and even the various bomb threats later in the novel are presented mainly as an opportunity to allow Stuyvesant to realize where his loyalties (and his heart) truly lie. Similarly, the character of Grey is more metaphorical than practical; much is made of the fact that his truth-sensing ability is an affliction rather than a gift, and his truth-sensing capacity is used mainly to illuminate personal secrets rather than political ones. As a novel of ideas, Touchstone is excellent, but those expecting big action, supernatural twists or neatly tied-off loose ends will be disappointed.

In the end, I didn’t remember the characters’ names, nor could I recall exactly what had happened when. What stayed with me were King’s insights into the minds of terrorists, her empathetic evocation of how an intelligent person can come to advocate the violent overthrow of their society and the creation of an idealized new order. King is excellent at getting in under the reader’s guard. In Touchstone, we experience the seductive pull of anarchy while simultaneously recoiling from its ultimate consequences. 3.5/5 stars.

One thought on “Touchstone, by Laurie King”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *