The Book Smugglers: Touchstone Awesomeness

Hey, people, I can’t tell you how happy I am that Ana and Thea of The Book Smugglers agreed to write a guest post for Andrea K Höst Week! For lots of reasons. Not only are The Book Smugglers one of the premier book blogger sites active today, not only do the eponymous Book Smugglers have excellent taste (eg, similar to mine) and thus direct me waaaay too often toward books I love that I might have missed, not only was Ana’s review of And All the Stars (along with Heidi’s at Bunbury in the Stacks) that first got me to buy AKH titles, but also the Book Smugglers’ joint review of The City in the Lake was really important to me. I mean, my first book! A review like that! You can imagine.

So, I’m very glad to welcome Ana and Thea over for the day! Herewith their joint take on Touchstone Awesomeness.

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First and foremost, thanks for having us over for this wonderful event! Like most people here, we are huge fans of Andrea K. Höst – although our introduction to her work has been somewhat staggered and scattered. Ana was the first one to read Höst’s work, reviewing her fantasy novel Champion of the Rose, followed by SFF dystopian novel And All the Stars, and then – DUN DUN DUN – Stray (the first book in the Touchstone trilogy).

Then, this past year while selecting books to read for our annual Smugglivus Feats of Strength, Ana dared Thea to *finally* try Höst’s work by reading Stray. And guess what? She loved it. The rest, as they say, is history. Shortly after Smugglivus concluded, we quickly decided that there was no reason for us to NOT read the rest of the Touchstone trilogy, which we accomplished in short order. And guess what else? With each further adventure of Cassandra’s we read (in Lab Rat One and Caszandra and The Gratuitous Epilogue), the more we fell head over heels in love with the series, and by extension Andrea K. Höst’s writing.

In case you don’t know about the Touchstone Trilogy yet, here’s the scoop:

Cassandra Devlin (Cass for short, never Cassie) leaves her final exams and somehow wanders through a rift in space to a place that she instinctively knows isn’t Earth. An abandoned alien world, Cass nearly dies of starvation and exposure until she’s scooped up by a humanoid group of elite soldiers, called the Setari. Cass is a “stray” – a wanderer between worlds – who cannot return home (it’s basically impossible without tearing huge apocalyptic holes in the fabric of the universe), and who is now a low-ranking citizen of Tare. Well, she’s low ranking and relatively unremarkable until it’s discovered that Cass possesses an unprecedented ability as a “touchstone.” That is, she can “charge” the telekinetic/psychic-gifted Setari (who are basically a police force that safeguards the universe from the threat of psychic ghost creatures), by enhancing their supernatural abilities. And… well, that’s just the tip of the psychic iceberg. There are abandoned planets uncovered, creepy clever spidery monsters, medical tests upon medical tests, copious amounts of danger, and an impressive dose of friendship and romance to boot.

In other words: We Love This Series. And here are the reasons why.

Reasons Why We Love The Touchstone Trilogy:

1. It’s one of the best epistolary novels you’ll ever read because it makes sense within the framework of the world, and because heroine Cassandra is made of awesome. Cass’ journal is a daily log of her activities and experiences in this new world. It works very well because it is both an “after-the-fact” focused account and an extremely personal recounting of all sorts of things from the mundane to the life-altering. In simple words, the narrative is Cassandra’s as she relays events and facts and muses about them. Those musings are often passionate, many times self-deprecating and always, always interesting. Plus, the reason why the epistolary format works in a believable manner directly connects with the worldbuilding: every person on this planet is connected to the network via a nanotech brain implant that records, connects, transmits, even translates anything and everything. Because Cass can literally replay her day, log her memories, and recall them, it makes perfect sense that her diary is so detailed. This does not mean that her entries are completely reliable: there is the question of WHAT she chooses to relay and how. Many times, Cass understates life-threatening situations in ways that make them sounds like trips to the grocery shop when they are anything but.

2. Amazing Worldbuilding. Multi-dimensions, multiple planets, different strands of humanity, aliens, psychic abilities from minor telekinesis to the ability to shape reality, the importance of history to explain the present are all threads that are interwoven in this story. We’d say that the Touchstone trilogy is a bona fide Scifi Party. At its core though, the trilogy is a tale of survival: both personal, when it comes to Cass, and collective, when it comes to the Tarens and how they must strive to survive against enemies they don’t entirely understand.

3. It Raises Provocative Questions. About issues like privacy (or the lack of it), access and environmentalism (amongst many others). Primarily, there’s the question of privacy. Because Cass is such an important asset for the Tarens and the Setari, she is constantly monitored and her freedom to come and go, limited. She is often taken for tests, undergoes training to understand the extent of her powers and thus, it’s no wonder she feels like a lab rat for most of the story. Because everything that she does and says is a matter of public interest and public safety, her life in Taren is one of constant struggle for privacy (one of the reasons why her diary, written in English, is essential for Cass to maintain her sanity). Cass isn’t the only one who grapples with the interconnected nature of the Network and utter lack of privacy – the Setari are equally hounded by regular people and constantly monitored by their superiors. Television shows are made about their lives, and gossip speculation runs rampant.

Access is an important thought here too, because Tarens have such exceptional technology – but are reluctant to share it with other human groupings of people in Tare’s local system. This is a pressure point for other cultures, especially when the (re)colonization of Muina begins. And, on the recolonization note, something Cass reflects upon frequently once Muina is being reclaimed by humanity is the Taren’s disregard for the outside world, natural wildlife and native ecosystems. It’s not a huge point in the book, but it’s a thought provoking one about the consequences of human civilization.

4. The Awesome Friendships and Secondary Characters. Cass is a bit of an outsider when she first arrives on Tare – being that she’s from a planet no one has ever heard of before and has an unprecedented psychokinetic gift – and she resents the never-ending training she’s subjected to with the Setari. That said, she quickly makes friends because she’s such a gregarious, genuinely open, and incredibly observant person. We LOVE the friendships she forms with other female characters (Tauriel and Zan in particular), just as we love the totally platonic relationships she has with male characters (especially Maze). There’s a heartwarming sense of camaraderie in this series – as there should be, given that these squads of people need to rely on each other to survive and do their jobs – and it’s so refreshing to read about these genuine, functional relationships.

5. The Romance. Because it’s a long slow burn, it evolves in a way that makes sense, and it’s SO GOOD, GUYS. We shall say no more: following Cass’ romantic journey as it happens is a huge part of why this trilogy is so, so delicious.

So that is it in a nutshell! We hope you’ll share our love for Andrea K Höst’s Touchstone trilogy – please gush away and share your own reasons for loving this phenomenal series!

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Thank you, Thea and Ana! AND, YES, the in-depth and thoughtful exploration of privacy issues is unique in my experience, and Höst’s handling of this issue is indeed Made of Awesome. To me, that was not the single most enjoyable aspect of this story (that was Cassandra’s voice and the romance), but it was the most intellectually impressive aspect. Not to mention increasingly relevant to today’s society.

How about you all?

a) most impressive intellectual aspect of The Touchstone Trilogy (I think there are actually multiple candidates for this part of the Awesome)

b) your personally favorite aspect of The Touchstone Trilogy? Cass herself, the romance, the secondary characters, the worldbuilding, the technology, what? So much Awesome, so hard to choose.

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3 thoughts on “The Book Smugglers: Touchstone Awesomeness”

  1. a) For me I think it’s the heroism from an ordinary person. Cass is so incredibly incomeptent at almost everything the Setari are good at, and I like that because it makes sense. She wasn’t trained from childhood like they were, and she wasn’t particularly athletic back on Earth, so she does not suddenly develop mad skills in this area. She really sucks at it, actually, and it’s pretty funny. Despite that, and despite her longing to go home, and the language barrier, she chooses to use the skills she does have to help the Tarens. And she initially sucks at that too, basically almost killing herself with her powers. And it all makes sense, because she was not trained in any of this, and it’s all new, so it is in fact a miracle she survives. Usually, it’s funner for me if the main character has some special hidden skills and is very competent (I loved Stained Glass Monsters for its competent heroine), but for an Austrialian teenager, this ordinariness is what you’d expect. It just rings so true. Even so, the trilogy shows how someone like that (someone like me) can make honorable, moral, and heroic choices, without changing Cass’s personality into something she’s not (though she does grow).

    b) The romance. Enough said.

  2. Cat, yes! I love how Cassandra starts off really bad at things like running up stairs and fighting and shooting and winds up still pretty bad at all of that. Making her good at swimming keeps her from being *too* physically incompetent, plus I love her perceptiveness and empathy and readiness to speak up — for herself (the lab rat was priceless!) and for Zan and later for the kids. Those are ordinary kinds of strengths rather than mad skills, but so important.

  3. b) The harder SF* elements of the worldbuilding, meaning mostly the infosphere stuff. (Though I was also charmed by Cass’ reaction to the nanotech recyclers in the plumbing.) The strong role of the mass media, and the cult of celebrity, is played up very nicely. One of my favorite bits is “Caszandra” being introduced on that popular show: a lovely bit of worldbuilding and with some significant character development opportunities, too. Some days I think this is the most impressive aspect of the books, full stop; some days I give the palm to…

    (*Psychic powers are soft SF; semi-real dimensional arrays, still more so.)

    a) The surprising sense of realism that the diary format gives to a book that’s full of really odd stuff (and a fair number of convenient improbabilities). Cass just has to deal with all of it as best she can, and her struggles to do so mean that it’s surprisingly easy to accept, say, the increasingly impressive set of superpowers she develops. Sometimes I find this limited-eye view a tad frustrating: notably, Cass thinks it’s a really big deal when she figures out the Secret Origin of Old Muina (or at least she thinks she does) … and then that turns out to be of no importance. But I have to admit that it does add an element of realism.
    And the repeated culture shock elements are very nicely done, e.g. it’s quite late in the books when she first happens to mention volcanoes, and the Tarens are completely gobsmacked at the notion because they only know geologically inactive planets.

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