Jun 17 2009 6:08pm

Clocks and stars and magic: Melissa Scott and Lisa A, Barnett’s Point of Hopes

Point of Hopes (1995) is a small scale city-based fantasy, like Melusine or Swordspoint. Do we have a word for that, now that “urban fantasy” means something else? Small scale fantasy? Low fantasy? Any better ideas?

It’s set in a world that’s on the edge of Renaissance technology—there are “locks,” one-shot pistols, there’s printing and widespread literacy. There are mercenary companies of soldiers, too, like condotierri. There’s also half a ton of magic, and astrology really works. It’s complicated astrology—well, it would have to be. There are two suns, a moon, three zodiacs, and while astrology really is destiny, it sort of falls in the place where gender does in our world in terms of controlling your life. There are astrological expectations you’re born with, and you can struggle against them, but if you don’t want what your stars suggest, it’s going to be uphill. As for actual gender, they consider that women stay in place and men wander, but lots of women have male stars and lots of men have female stars. Your stars affect what will become of you, and sometimes even what you look like, and everybody therefore pays a great deal of attention to the hour of their birth and to changes in the heavens, which don’t appear to be as predictable as our stars.

In this world, in the city of Astreiant, there are tensions between old nobles and new guilds, and a police force drawn from commoners has been set up, known as the Points. Rathe works as a pointsman at Point of Hopes, and as the book begins, he’s called to investigate the disappearance of a butcher’s apprentice girl. Meanwhile, Philip Eslingen has been promoted to lieutenant in one of the mercenary companies that has been paid off, and wants to spend the summer quietly until he can get a good position in the autumn recruiting season. The two men circulate throughout the city, very familiar to one and very strange to the other, in alternating chapters, as the mystery of the disappearing children deepens.

The world is very well developed, with lots of different cultures. We only see Astreiant up close, but there’s a real sense of a whole planet out there, seen from a viewpoint similar to Renaissance Italy. It’s a pleasantly diverse world. It’s worth mentioning that Philip as a white-skinned Leaguer runs into some prejudice for this in dark-skinned Astreiant, which had a war with the League twenty years ago. (Rathe, our other hero, is from the lower classes of Astreiant.) We see people of lots of different skin shades and cultures. This is a world with little problem with homosexuality—which makes sense when it’s defining gender astrologically as much as physically—and it seems about as common as it is now. There’s a one-legged ex-soldier working as a recruiter, and there are people of all ages. This shouldn’t be notable and unusual, but it is. Scott and Barnett get these things right.

The mystery plot is there, and competent enough, but it’s just there to keep things moving. The world is so interesting that it doesn’t really matter what happens, as long as the characters have a reason to keep moving about in it. I noticed this more in the sequel, Point of Dreams, where I was more familiar with the world. Both books have mysteries that Rathe and Eslingen have reasons to investigate, in neither book is that really the point. The social revolutions just beginning, the magic  the obsession with clocks and time and astrology, the strange moment when all the clocks strike in the night and everyone is terrified, are a lot more interesting than the eventual revelation of the plot. While I’m on negative points, some of the names are awful—would any mother call a son Istre b’Estorr? And how are you supposed to pronounce Trijntje? But in compensation, the use of actual words, “magistry” (magic), “locks” (guns) “pointsmen” (policemen) is done brilliantly. And the names do work for giving you the feel of several different cultures. I just prefer things that don’t get stuck in my throat.

Generally this is a delightful novel, well written and well thought-out.

Chris Taylor
1. Sidereal
I have to agree, Point of Hopes is one of my favorite fantasies. I was delighted to get the sequel when it came out, and even more delighted to find that it was just as good as the first book. And let me plug The Armor of Light by the same authors, which pushes (for me, at least) some of the same buttons, but takes place in an alternate history version of Elizabethan England, and features many of that era's famous persons as characters.

As for replacing the stolen "urban fantasy" label, how about "urbane fantasy"? Probably too simliar to work, though. Or how about "Fantasy of Manners"? I haven't seen that used in a long time.

Oh, and I do have to say, as a professional astronomer the astrology did give a slight bad flavor. But that's just me -- I doubt many of you have been asked to cast a horoscope on an airplane after telling the occupant of the next seat over your profession.

Hugh Arai
2. HArai
Thank you Jo, another for the list.

@1: Did you go with "The purchase of a dictionary is in your future"? Probably not, most people are more polite than I am :)
3. OtterB
I really enjoyed these also. The city and its class conflicts felt real, characters made decisions that were sometimes wrong but not TSTL, and (opposite of the Eight Words of Death) I cared what happened to those people.

I like the label of Fantasy of Manners. I know how I'd define it, but is there a generally accepted definition?
Chris Taylor
4. Sidereal
@4: There is a definition on wikipedia. I don't know if it is generally accepted (don't know any generals....) but it seems pretty good, and Point of Hopes would fit.
5. Jim Henry III
I haven't read the book and don't know how consistent the naming system is, but in isolation "Trijntje" looks sort of Dutch, with the |j| pronounced /j/, like English "y" in "yoyo", and thus |ij| is a long or diphthongized /i/, /ij/ or /i:/.
6. Teka Lynn
I both smiled happily and felt a pang when I saw the title to this entry: happiness that a relatively obscure duology is still being written about, and sadness that there won't be any more Points books.

I see the world of Astreiant as (at least partly) a fusion of our-world seventeenth century French and Flemish (proto-Belgian?) I assume "Trijntje" follows Dutch or Flemish pronunciation rules.
7. sunjah
Ooh, I have got to check these out.
After I finish Backroom Boys, just arrived via Interlibrary Loan.
And, er, it's spelled "condottieri".
Matt Austern
8. austern
The mystery might not be the real point, but one of the things I liked a lot about this book was that it posited a new kind of crime that's possible only in a universe where astrology is reliable technology.
Kate Nepveu
9. katenepveu
I read this one, liked it, and stalled out on the sequel for absolutely no reason that I can tell. I mean to go back to it one of these days, honest. (Not least because I meant to booklog them together and thus have never written this one up.)
10. aleistra
ould any mother call a son Istre b’Estorr? And how are you supposed to pronounce Trijntje?

Neither of those names particularly bothers me (as others have noticed, Trijntje not only looks Dutch but is apparently a real, albeit uncommon, Dutch name -- a search turns up several people by that name, including a current musician and an extremely tall woman) but I hope they aren't supposed to be from the same culture.
11. Shireling
I enjoyed "Point of Hopes", and "The Armor of Light" was a classic. Now that "Point of Dreams" is out of print, would some savvy SF/F publishing company consider doing a paperback reprint?

Jo, your blogs about noteworthy SF/F books of the past are a highlight of this site. I devoured so many of these books when they first came out. But how on (this or any other) Earth do you reread them all, blog, and keep up with your own fiction writing?
Stephen W
13. Xelgaex
"City-based fantasy" seems perfect to me. It is succinct and emphasizes that part of the "urban fantasy" label which you want to invoke without the baggage of the additional associations of "urban fantasy."
14. Andrew Plotkin
I like "urbane fantasy" and "city-based fantasy", but the former leans in a funny direction and the latter is clumsy. I propose "civil fantasy". As Jo said, these books are all about the... civics.

My favorite bit is the up-front struggle of Rathe to turn the pointsmen, who are *not* police, into police.. Which is primarily a struggle to invent the *idea* of police.
15. Lenora Rose
Jo, thanks for this review; I picked up the book used because I liked the apparently smaller setting (NOT epic fantasy) and had heard good things about the authors, but it's always nice to get one more good review that not only confirms the obvious surface impressions, but suggests others that happen to hit my narrative kinks.

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