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Goats, gripes, and grasping for greatness
Books: Touch, by Michelle Sagara (includes spoilers!) 
9th-Jan-2014 11:23 am
Today to Read
Touch, by Michelle Sagara. Urban Fantasy, hardback, 384 pages. Second in the series. Keeping it.

Wow. Sagara doesn't shy from the hard subjects, and this book is full of them. The theme of this story (not the plot) is "what makes a human a monster/evil, and who gets to define that?" From the first book, we readers learned that assassins travel the world trying to kill budding necromancers before they come into power because of the assumption that they will be evil. Emma, our heroine, is a budding necromancer who refuses to command or control the dead. In the opening of this second book, Emma is dealing with all kinds of pressures, like talking with her dead dad over homework and navigating high school. Added to that, her friend Allison is dealing with her own lack of talents in just about everything but school and being a good friend. Stir in a guy who has lived with resentment most of his life for never having anyone love him. Add normal things, like parents, and less-normal things like dead people arguing with live people.

This is the second book, and gets rather assumptive of backstory here. Most of Emma's necromantic powers are already established for the reader. Emma can see/talk to the dead, and she can make them visible/audible to others if she touches them. She can use her physical hands in metaphysical ways. But she continues to refuse to use or abuse anyone around her to strengthen herself or exercise power for personal gain.

Emma's powers of friendship are quite strong, mostly because of loyalty and acceptance of people as they are rather than as she wishes them to be. That requirement of understanding is the foundation of her friendships with everyone from Michael (high functioning autistic) to Allison (plain bookish introvert) to Amy (queen bee and social force of nature). Emma, Eric, Chase, and a host of other characters move through the story. The alliances and understandings among the group are fluid, and come under storytelling pressure both from Emma's decisions and from those of her friends. All of the various relationships are in play in this series, and are highlighted even more as this second book breaks into separate points of view, rather than focusing exclusively on Emma.

Spoilers ahead

The point of view that is most perilous is that of Nathan, Emma's months-gone dead boyfriend. The book starts out in present tense from his point of view inside the car accident that kills him. In an edifice of storytelling that I find difficult to enjoy, Nathan's POV in the story is told in present tense, contrasted by the mostly past-tense rest of the story. (Either Sagara does not have quite a firm enough grasp of grammar, or I of her idiom, to make those tense transitions well.)

The other strongly presented point of view besides Emma's is that of Allison, loyal friend and girl of no particular powers or talents. She's smart, she understands Emma and Michael, and she can communicate when no one else wants to do so. She also has weaknesses of pride - for example, she hates to fight in front of anyone because she knows it makes her face red and blotchy - and strengths of character that make her decisions completely believable.

For most of the story, Allison's arguments centered around her loyalty to Emma, and focused on the character most trying to pull them apart: Eric. But there was some budding resentment, too, as Nathan reappeared in the story and therefore in Emma's life. Allison and Nathan got along well enough, but Allison was not used to being ignored by Emma in favor of an invisible friend.

No really, there are major spoilers here. I don't want anyone with tender spots about autistic people or abandoned children to walk into this one blind.

painful spoilers ahead
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In the previous book, Emma and her friends went off into danger to save a ghost-toddler from a long-burned-out housefire that he was permanently reliving. In this book, Emma talked a crying ghost boy out of a ravine by promising to take him home. This ghost was both autistic and confused about why he died. He did what his mother told him to do - wait in the cold in the ravine until she came to get him.

Yes. What you think.

This was a painfully real part of the book. As I said, the theme of this book is "what makes a person a monster" and here was a huge psychological confrontation for me, as a reader, to step into a book and face a reality of life: mothers abandon their children to die.

Sagara, and therefore Emma, pushed the plot and that question through some very painful contemplations and confrontations to a point beyond judgment of another person. This was where the strength of Emma's character was proven to be so solid, and not maleable for the sake of plot continuation. Emma was willing to step beyond her mental judgments of people to see the actors in this tragedy as they were, not as she wanted to believe. And while the resolution was ok-enough for the moment, Sagara did not waive any epiphany wands over any characters' heads to change who and what they were for the sake of readers' solid sleep later.

I picked this book up because the first one was really quite good. I recommend it with caution to people who would like to continue along in the story.
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