Title: With a Touch
Author: Sasha L. Miller
Length: 16,000 words.
Publisher: Less Than Three Press
Genre: m/m fantasy
In his search for the missing candidate who can stop the unceasing rains plaguing the country, Eneko is led to a cluster of rentboys desperately trying to make money despite the foul weather. When the candidate once more runs away, Eneko is left relying on the remaining rentboys, including the handsome, self-contained, and highly distracting Lain.
An interesting concept for a short story with strong world-building, but there wasn’t enough chemistry between the main characters for me to rate it highly as a romance.
With a Touch is a longish short story, mainly narrated from the perspective of Eneko, a rather staid member of the Select Guard–the priests who police the priesthood. We discover early on that he has been “touched by the hand of Ruarc”, meaning he’s one of the members of this society who can perform magic. Eneko’s particular gift is seeking, and he has been trusted with an important mission to find the missing “candidate”, the only one who will be able to stop the incessant rains from falling. He has crafted a special amulet to help him find the candidate, which leads him to a group of four rentboys sheltering from the rain.
Unfortunately, the amulet isn’t strong enough to show Eneko which of the four, similar looking young men is the candidate. It isn’t until he touches the hand of Talmai that they both receive a shock, and Talmai runs away… again. Saya runs after Talmai, leaving Eneko with hostile Jerin and the intriguing Lain. Eneko is taken back to the room the four men share, and through their conversations we learn more about the world they live in, where a magical priesthood rules. A priesthood who managed to spook Talmai so badly last time he visited the temple, he ran away to make his living on the street.
Sasha L. Miller is a good writer and she knows how to craft a story well. The mystery at the heart of the story unfolds slowly, gradually deepening as we travel further towards the heart of the temple. Unfortunately, despite the interesting worldbuilding and appealing steampunky feel to the story, I never really felt the connection between the Lain and Eneko. Eneko in particular just didn’t come alive for me as a character. This could be because he was so sheltered and a bit of a goody two-shoes, but I think it was also a result of him having to explain so much about the priesthood that it rather got in the way of me finding our more about him.
Lain was definitely more appealing, and he had an interesting skill which I enjoyed learning more about. I was disappointed that the fact he was a rentboy wasn’t used more in the story, though. I generally expect rentboy stories to have either a certain amount of grit or sex in them (especially when billed as a “Halloween Rentboy” story), and this story lacked both elements. The life the four young men lead looks pretty cosy, with nothing much in the way of danger, and the sex element was so lacking I didn’t feel any sexual chemistry between Lain and Eneko whatsoever.
I think if you’re a real fantasy fan and don’t mind a lighter sort of urban fantasy, you’ll probably enjoy this story as there are plenty of interesting elements to it. I wouldn’t say it was so satisfying for those reading more for the romance element, though.