Cynthia Ward reviews Scott & Barnett’s Point of Dreams

This month, the Lethe Press project to reissue the classic Astreiant series reaches Point of Dreams, written by Melissa Scott and the late Lisa A. Barnett, and first published in 2001. Like prequel volumes Point of Hopes (1995) and Point of Knives (2012), the Lambda Literary Award winning Point of Dreams is a genre-bending police-procedural novel set in a secondary world in which astrology, alchemy, and necromancy are working sciences. And, as in its predecessors, the crimes committed in Point of Dreams could happen only in the world of Astreiant.

Not that Point of Dreams opens with a crime. It opens with one of the two main characters, ex-soldier Philip Eslingen, about to be terminated from employment as a crime lord’s bodyguard because his affair with a cop — his fellow lead, Adjunct Point Nicholas Rathe — failed to terminate, as the lovers had planned in Point of Knives. Eslingen’s boss holds no ill will, however, and recommends his ex-employee for a new job in the theatre, training actors in stage fighting and choreographing fight scenes. Landing the gig, Eslingen’ learns he’s not working on just any play. It’s the midwinter masque, a magically potent production vital to the fate of the queen and realm of Chenedolle, and particularly critical this year, with the aging, childless ruler preparing to name her heiress.

These events strain the couple’s young, still-uncertain relationship; and the strain isn’t helped when Eslingen, losing his residence with his old job, abruptly moves in with Rathe, who’s just been transferred to the police station in Point of Dreams, the theatre district — “a lateral promotion if ever there was one.” In addition, the stars and planets have aligned to afflict Astreiant, throne-city of Chenedolle, with extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds; one folly is a craze for corms that resembles the seventeenth-century Dutch mania for tulip bulbs, and another is a Twilight-style obsession with a lurid stage melodrama known as “The Drowned Island.” Further, autumn has brought the ghost-tide, a weeks-long Día de los Muertos that leaves the policeman and the ex-soldier literally haunted by the ghosts of those they’ve lost or killed. Naturally, things only go downhill from here.

Since Adjunct Point Rathe’s sterling reputation for crime-solving has preceded him to his new post, he quickly finds himself oversubscribed. First, the well-respected lawyer Kurin Holles asks Rathe to personally investigate the death of Holles’s leman of almost two decades, an equally well-respected judge who’d been involved in producing the crucial midwinter masque before his death. Holles believes his partner’s death — ruled natural by the authorities — is anything but. If it were, Holles would see his lover’s ghost; he doesn’t. Rathe takes the case, and quickly finds himself in conflict with some very high-ranking and powerful officials.

Then a nobleman who’s been cast in the masque is found dead in Eslingen’s new workplace: drowned on a dry stage. The body hasn’t been moved, and the stage, set for the soon-to-conclude production of “The Drowned Island,” holds nothing in which anyone could drown. It’s murder; but Rathe’s investigation meets with no success, because the masque’s crew and cast are large, and its chorus consists entirely of well-born individuals, used to getting their way and unused to police attention. Further, the victim was nondescript, with no discernable friends or enemies. Finally, the murder is impossible by all means, mundane and magical — and it’s joined by more mysterious murders and murder attempts. Rathe and Eslingen must once again combine their wits, skills, and contacts in an attempt to solve an inexplicable crime wave.

In my reviews of the preceding Astreiant books, I described how Scott and Barnett skillfully illuminated the “sexually fluid, racially diverse, polytheistic, matrilineal, matriarchal” aspects of their fictional city; but I didn’t really touch on Astreiant’s socioeconomic elements, though they too are a revealing and fascinating aspect of their creation, a world inspired by the Renaissance. In eschewing the popular practice of deriving their fantasy setting from medieval Europe — a choice which limits the characters to royals, nobles, peasants, soldiers, and an occasional butcher, baker, or candlestick maker — Scott and Barnett created a world with far greater social mobility and an expanding, increasingly prosperous middle class of merchants, bankers, and tradespeople; and they took advantage of this opportunity for diversity by drawing a significant number of their characters from that class. As a result, the Astreiant books immerse readers in an unusually complex, vibrant, and flexible fantasy society, enriched by a multiplicity of occupations and roles, and featuring wonderfully representative leads (Rathe has risen from “common laborer [and] southriver rat” to police investigator, and Eslingen has risen from “motherless” [bastard] son to lieutenant and theatre instructor). This intricate, fascinating, and thoroughly believable setting is particularly crucial to Point of Dreams, because the novel centers on a secular institution that was largely unknown to medieval societies, yet is the most famous Renaissance leisure activity in modern eyes: the theatre.

But this isn’t Elizabethan England, or Renaissance Europe. It’s Astreiant, where magic is real, stars are crossed, and entertainment engenders trends. The Astreiant version of tulip-mania erupts because the midwinter masque is based on “The Alphabet of Desire,” a collection of recipes for flower arrangements which — according to long-discredited rumor — contains a working system of magic. And, as floral arrangements fill the theatre and Rathe finds himself almost succumbing to the charms of an ex-lover he doesn’t actually like, he and his lover learn the rumors are true. But how can Rathe and Eslingen track down the working spell-book and prevent further murders, when no one else believes this magic system is real except the unknown murderer, and dozens of ineffective counterfeits of “The Alphabet of Desire” are flooding the city?

Given the importance of horticulture, readers will discern the serial killer’s identity more quickly than our heroes; but Rathe and Eslingen aren’t slow on the uptake. However, they face a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. They can’t find a motive strong enough to persuade Rathe’s superiors of the murderer’s identity. They haven’t found evidence strong enough to persuade the city’s magists that the long-dismissed magic system is real. Most critically, how can Rathe and Eslingen prevent the impending regicidal holocaust if they can’t find the working spell-book?

As in the preceding volumes, the day is imaginatively saved, the plot is satisfyingly resolved, Rathe and Eslingen’s relationship moves to a new stage, and fans new and old are left eager for the next volume. That novel — Melissa Scott’s all-new sequel, Fair’s Point — is forthcoming next year.

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