It's a treat to see something new from Ms. Rawn at last,
after a long drought in the mysterious and frustrating aftermath of the
Ambrai 'trilogy'. In the interim, I've only seen one Rawn work (The Diviner), and didn't like it much. Unlike a number of reviewers, I did like Touchstone.
Rawn made her name with heavily romantic fantasy in the style of Mary Stewart's Merlin series, but tilted more toward romance and less toward real relationships. She did it very well, and the books were good. I and many others were enthralled, up until the Ambrai series suddenly stopped mid-flow.
This book veers slightly from the formula, with a little more focus on the mechanics of magical theater. As I was with Robin Hobb's latest series, I was disappointed in the cultural world-building - primarily because I'm sorry that in the 21st century, the default setting for fantasy is still privileges for men and subservience for women. The individual characters in this book (and Hobb's) are of course feisty and rebellious, but the society is firmly male dominated. There are hints of potential for change, but essentially, it's harder to lose yourself in a world that not only replicates real world problems, but the problems of some decades ago. (Not that there isn't still a lot of room for progress here.)
On the bright side, Rawn uses a lot of fun, archaic words - perhaps even too many, but they do add to the ambiance. She also takes a great deal of care, spending much of this book setting up a relationship that seems almost certain to arrive in later books. It seems clear that the relationship is meant to be seen as illicit, but Rawn spends virtually no time addressing that aspect of the society, which will undermine the relationship if it does develop.
Sadly, for a book of this nature, very few of the characters are fully developed. Even among the four artists, only two of them, Caden and Mieka, are really explored. Most others are simply filler, and the relationships are thin. The world, as well, is apparently interesting, but woefully underexplored, as is the society overall. A map would have been helpful.
The book also starts slowly, and with some confusion. The roles of the artists are not very clear, and in fact they never really become clear. It's a recurring weakness that threads through the very core of the book.
So, it's not a great book, but I do think it's a good one. The writing is largely good, the characters are engaging, and the world is interesting. I will be following up with the other books in the series eventually, even if not as a high priority. I recommend it for Rawn fans, and fans of romantic fantasy generally.
* On a side note, what's the deal with publishers who skimp on the covers for ebooks? Despite the image above, the ebook actually has a much simpler and less attractive cover. The same is true for the reissued Sheri S. Tepper books, which have really terrible, basic covers. To me, it just says cheap.