Touch of Power is the story of Avery. She is a Healer, a woman who is able to heal people by touching them. When she does this, her own body takes on the illness or wounds of the sick or injured person, but because Healers are able to recover at a much faster rate than other people, they are usually (but not always) able to survive the process.
When a plague struck the Fifteen Realms, killing millions of people, the Healers were unable to treat it without dying. They were blamed for the plague, hunted down, and killed. To the best of her knowledge, Avery is the last surviving Healer.
Avery is rescued/kidnapped by a group of people who want her to heal their Prince, who is dying of the plague. Avery has her own reasons to want the Prince dead and she and the band's leader, Kerrick, have a battle of wills over the prince's fate as they make the long journey to where he is being kept in stasis. During this time, Avery begins to trust and be trusted by most of the band but is both enraged by and drawn to the domineering and mysterious Kerrick.
This is a compelling fantasy novel. The world building is solid and the characters are fun to read about. Avery has such a strong sense of ethics that she borders on being a little too saintly, but she has enough flaws to keep her interesting. She's smart, she's determined, and she's very clear about what she will and won't do in terms of self-sacrifice versus survival. The plot is exciting. There's a lot of time during which the merry band is travelling…and travelling…and travelling, but that gives the characters time to get to know each other, so that Avery's transformation from prisoner to accepted member of the group is realistic. I really am excited about reading the next book despite the scathing things I am about to say about Kerrick, because I care about Avery, her friends, and the fate of the Fifteen Realms. There weren't a ton of surprises, but it was an inventive setting with people and politics that I felt invested in.
The biggest problem with the book is that we are supposed to root for Avery and Kerrick to get together, and I…didn't. Frankly, I probably never would have gone for Kerrick. I generally dislike alpha males who are brooding and mysterious and who never talk, and Kerrick is as broody and alpha as possible. Kerrick does various awful things to Avery (ties her to a tree at night, for instance) but these things didn't offend my tender sensibilities because I understood his motivation. She's a prisoner; his prince's life depends on her staying a prisoner, that's just how it goes.
Still, I just couldn't connect to Kerrick. Part of this is that he's taciturn, so I never got a feel for what he thinks or how he feels.
The real deal breaker happens early in the book when Kerrick “loses his temper” and punches Avery in the face for saying something hostile about the prince. He punches her so hard that he knocks her down and her face is bruised for days despite her accelerated healing rate. Kerrick himself admits that he doesn't do it for strategic reasons, he just “loses his temper”. Even though this happens early in the book, and he never does it again, I could not get beyond the image of her bruise as it “swelled, turned red, and faded to a mere smudge of greenish-black”. I could feel empathy for Kerrick, and interest in him as a character, but I had no desire for him to become Avery's romantic partner. The whole scene is bizarre because there's no indication of Kerrick being generally abusive or particularly violent. It's out of character, it's not a major part of the book, and yet it totally defined Kerrick for me from that point onward.
I found Touch of Power in the Romance section of the bookstore, but it's being marketed as fantasy elsewhere, so perhaps it's more accurate to refer to it as a “fantasy with romantic elements”. Additionally, this is the first book in a trilogy, so I expect we'll see more development of the romance as the series progresses. In this case, that doesn't affect my perception of the book. I'm fine with the romance not being the main focus, and the resolution is actually pretty solid. My problem is that whether there's a lot of romance or a little, Avery is having it with the wrong guy so that romantic of the book, no matter how minor it may be, does not work.
At this point in this review I have written and deleted three different paragraphs about why you should not date a guy who punches you. I wrote the paragraphs because this concept is important to me. I deleted them because it really isn't the focus of the book I'm reviewing. Also, I can't help but hope that anyone who calls themselves a Smart Bitch will please, please already know that the guy who punches you is not a winner. If you are with a guy who subjects you to physical or emotional abuse, I am begging you to seek your happy ending elsewhere. The National Domestic Hotline phone number is 1-800-799-SAFE.
If you can just sort of skip over the awful couple of pages in which this whole punching thing happens, you'll probably really like Touch of Power as a solid fantasy novel. It's just a shame that this completely unnecessary element was inserted, almost at random, into the book, because I was never quite able to overlook it and it's really not what the book it about. If I'm very lucky, maybe there will be an amazing twist and Avery will dump Kerrick for Belen, a great supporting character who protects her and teaches her how to protect herself. It's wildly unlikely, but I can dream. The other characters and the world-building and the plot deserve better than Kerrick and his temper problem.