I’ve been vaguely wanting to read Touch for a couple of years now, firstly because I read (and, apparently, commented on) a favourable review of it at the Book Smugglers in 2015, and secondly because author Claire North is also Kate Griffin, she who wrote the love letter to London which is A Madness of Angels, and also Catherine Webb, author of the Horatio Lyle series for younger readers.
Touch is technically fantasy, but it seems to have been positioned more as a thriller, which perhaps explains the variously hyperbolic cover quotes from reviewers calling it the most original thing since sliced bread. This, alas, seems to be the general fate of anything vaguely SFF gaining any kind of success in a non-fantastical market: critics and readers gushing as if they’ve discovered something entirely new, while seasoned SFF readers shake their heads over a novel that’s actually quite ordinary.
And so it is with Touch.
Touch‘s main character is Kepler. Kepler is a ghost, which in this context means an entity who can pass from body to body with a single touch (geddit? I didn’t, not for a frankly ridiculous length of time anyway), stealing lives along with bodies. When Kepler’s host Josephine is murdered, Kepler swears to find out why – and discovers that a shady organisation named Aquarius is hunting down and killing ghosts.
How many times did I use the word “Kepler” in that last sentence? One of the things that becomes very obvious about Touch when you try and write about it is that Kepler as Kepler doesn’t have a gender identity; or, rather, Kepler’s gender identity is tied to the sex of the body Kepler’s inhabiting. I think I would find this, and its implication that gender and sex are straightforwardly the same thing, less problematic if it were tackled head-on: how does Kepler identify in the body of an intersex person? Or a transitioning person? It’s implied that other ghosts identify differently – certainly one of them calls Kepler out on Kepler’s total appropriation of a host’s identity and history, including their gender (and their name; it’s Aquarius that comes up with the name “Kepler”, not the ghost) – but this isn’t explored, which feels like an unbelievably huge missed opportunity.
In fact, that’s really how the whole novel feels. It’s a shame that this intriguing premise has been shoved into a box marked “thriller”: the taut pacing that genre demands doesn’t give the questions Touch raises about identity any space to breathe. There’s also a line of thinking buried somewhere in the novel about the morality of survival: the ghosts’ only choice is between oblivion and stealing someone’s life (there’s a character in Touch whose body is sixty but who, thanks to hosting a ghost, has only actually experienced twenty years of his life, which is too horrible to think about for very long). But this never goes anywhere in particular either; in fact, our pity for the human hosts robbed of decades of life feels like an afterthought, secondary to Kepler’s quest for revenge against Josephine’s killers.
I mean: I didn’t hate Touch. It passed the time. It’s competently written, competently paced, competently characterised – Kepler feels like a real person, a person we sympathise with, and Kepler’s love for Kepler’s willing human hosts is genuine and in some cases achingly sad. It’s just that there’s better stuff out there doing the same thing: David Mitchell’s Horologists (The Bone Clocks) are more convincing as body-hopping immortals, and his novel is more nuanced and complex too. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is better at exploring characters unmoored from their bodies and their gender identities – as is, for that matter, Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit (whose predecessor, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, was another SFF novel that received mainstream recognition). I’d recommend any of those novels over Touch.