Jun 4 2012 10:01am

Queering SFF – Pride Month Extravaganza: Point of Knives by Melissa Scott

Point of Knives cover by Melissa ScottTo begin the Pride Month Extravaganza on at Queering SFF, I’d like to talk about a forthcoming book that perfectly balances the old with the new—sort of what we’re going for, this month!—and that’s Point of Knives, a novella of Astreiant, by Melissa Scott. Point of Knives is the first new story set in the fantastical world of Astreiant since more than a decade ago, and is the first penned solely by Scott after the passing of partner Lisa A. Barnett in 2006.

Fans of queer speculative fiction are likely familiar with the novels between which Point of Knives takes place: Point of Hopes (1995; discussed by Jo Walton here) and Point of Dreams (2001), both originally published by Tor and returning to print from Lethe Press. Lethe has brought the out-of-print classic back to life with a lovely new edition of Point of Hopes, followed by this novella (to be released in July) and a new edition of Point of Dreams in the fall.

In Point of Knives, there’s a mystery to solve—but underneath and around that mystery is the growing, complicated relationship between Nicolas Rathe and Philip Eslingen that began in Point of Hopes and had already flourished by the opening of Point of Dreams. This novella fleshes out the interval, offering readers insight into the inner workings of both Astreiant and the novels’ protagonists.

For those who haven’t read Point of Hopes yet, I advise that you run posthaste to your local bookseller and snag a copy—and then come back for Point of Knives. The significance of this long novella will be lost on readers unfamiliar with the characters, though its delightful world-building and mystery plot won’t be any less entertaining either way. Still, I had such a wonderful time reading Point of Hopes that I’d direct you, readers of Queering SFF, in the book’s direction regardless.

The Astreiant novels are satisfying, fun, and a genuine pleasure to read—Point of Knives being no exception to the rule. Melissa Scott’s return to the world she crafted with Lisa A. Barnett is seamless, though her closing notes in the new edition of Point of Hopes are sobering; the inherent difficulty of her return to Astreiant does not show in the playful, clever prose that matches the voice of the previous novels well. (In fact, I picked up the novella immediately after reading Point of Hopes, and it didn’t give me a pause in style.)

In Point of Knives, Rathe and Eslingen are both still working for their respective employers from the previous novel—Rathe as Adjunct Point (a policeman, of sorts) at Point of Hopes, and Eslingen as Hanselin Caiazzo’s knife (bodyguard, assistant, etc.). The conflict of interests has kept them apart after a brief, passionate physical affair; neither employer wants the agent of the other in contact with their business. The men are thrown together again, however, when a chest of untaxed gold goes missing after a pirate and his aged father are murdered—and the pirate was supposed to be trading the gold to Caiazzo. The mystery is further compounded by the appearance of a woman claiming to have contracted marriage with the pirate, though his son and associates say otherwise, and trying to claim the man’s belongings. Caiazzo sends Eslingen to work with Rathe, to protect his own interests in the case and see it solved, but their working together proves more tempting than either was prepared for. At the opening of Point of Dreams, we discovered that Eslingen was to be fired from Caiazzo’s service for his relationship to Rathe—and this novella shows exactly how that came about.

The mystery is well-constructed—the identity of the murderer isn’t so much the surprise as how it all fits together, and who played which part in the commission of the crime. Perhaps the most intriguing part of Point of Knives was the view into the titular station and its workings. The way the relatively new institution of the Points functions is a source of constant curiosity for me as a reader. And then, of course, there are the protagonists whose story is the real draw: Rathe and Eslingen, an odd pair if there ever was one, but well-suited regardless. The sense that we’d missed something between Point of Hopes and Point of Dreams was strong for me, because their friendship was blooming by the end of the first novel—but by the beginning of the second, it had become enough of a romance to be worth losing handsome employment over, for Eslingen. I’m glad to finally have that story told.

The way that Scott handles the interpersonal conflict and development in Point of Knives is spot-on also, a perfect mix of uncertainty, desire, and the awkward blank spots that make up the early parts of any relationship. The emotional strain that discussion of their star signs induces stuck with me, in particular, for the deft way that it brings to life the world of Astreiant through a tense personal moment. The world makes the characters and the characters make the world, in these books; the interrelation of it all is woven intricately and carefully throughout the story.

Truly, the experience of reading Point of Knives is much the same as the experience of reading the other Astreiant books: difficult to describe. Pinpointing exactly what part of the book made me enjoy it so thoroughly is almost maddening. Every part of it is good, though none of it outstanding—yet the end result is definitively joy and satisfaction. In a way, this makes perfect sense, because these books are hybrids; the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. They are mystery stories, but they’re set in a deliciously complicated secondary world that’s somewhat analogous to the late Renaissance—except that astrology is as real as bricks, and magic abounds. Also, while the mysteries are always fun and fast-paced, they are somehow never the real focus of the narrative; instead, the characters tend to drive the story with their relationships, gambles, conflicts and curiosities.

Furthermore, the city itself is one of the best characters in the series, and the desire to see more of it unfold is equally as engaging as the plot. This city is built up of conflicting classes, many different races—in fact, the majority of native Astreiant citizens are people of color—and, my personal favorite, a system of gender and sexuality that embraces queerness. Because childbearing and marriage are contracted by stars, more often than not, romantic relationships between folks of any gender aren’t seen as particularly better or worse than others. There’s a heady joy to reading about a city where queerness is unremarked and on every corner. Plus, Point of Knives and the other Astreiant books have another strength: there are women of power, stature, and smarts all over the place, though the protagonists are men. That’s a difficult balance, and one that Scott (and, earlier, Barnes) manage spectacularly well.

There are few books that leave me with both a sense of warm comfort as well as an intense desire to see more when I’m finished reading—Point of Knives, and the Astreiant series as a whole, are some of those. They are greater than they seem. Fun and engaging, yes, but also possessing a strong emotional core, precise and fascinating world-building, and wonderful characters. With Lethe’s new editions, and the release of a new book in the series, I hope that a fresh set of readers will have a chance to venture into this world and follow the adventures of Rathe and Eslingen. I recommend Point of Knives for fans of Astreiant who’ve been waiting these long years for a return—you’ll be greatly pleased—and the Astreiant books as a whole for readers who haven’t had a chance to stumble upon them before. They’re queer, they’re feminist, and they’re generally a delight.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic and occasional editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.

Kate Nepveu
1. katenepveu
Thanks for alerting me to the existence of this!
Teka Lynn
2. Teka Lynn
So, so happy that this is coming out. It's a wonderful series, but has been very hard to find until the reprint.
Teka Lynn
3. h-mb
Thanks! That's a discovery for me but I'm going to start Point of hopes very soon.
Teka Lynn
5. Andrea K
Didn't know this was happening! Time to grab (and maybe re-read the first two books).
Sally Bibrary
6. BendingtheBookshelf
Okay, so what you're telling me is that I need to dust off the first 2 books and give them a read. :)

Seems like they've been languishing on the shelf forever, but maybe having a new story to read will prompt me.
Teka Lynn
7. M. H. Crane
I'm so glad to hear these are being reissued. Along with Diane Duane's 'Middle Kingdoms' books, the Points novels are some of my best references for queer-friendly secondary worlds that *work*.
Teka Lynn
8. Hodge
In this fictional world, female comes before male, and is accorded greater respect. This is subtle and easy to miss if you're not looking for it. For example, in our world, we use the pronoun "he" when speaking of a hypothetical or unknown person. In Astreiant they say "she". The merchant families are headed by women; a man with no family name is not fatherless, but motherless. There is no suggestion that the queen needs a king, only an heir; and a woman of means who obtains an heir from a lover may reward him with property and/or money. It's fascinating to read, because it doesn't hit you over the head. It's not "in your face" feminism, but simply the truth of the world as the citizens of Astreiant perceive it. I adore this world and these characters, and hope there will be more stories of Rather and Eslingen.
Teka Lynn
9. hodge
Ooops, typo. Meant "Rathe" not Rather!
Teka Lynn
10. Ashbet
I've just discovered these books, and have been enjoying them immensely (and the new novel, "Fairs' Point," comes out at the end of next month!)

It makes me happy to see a queer-friendly world with strong female characters, despite the protagonists being male -- the society that Scott and Barnes envisioned is elaborate, consistent, and deeply fascinating.

I also like the touches of matriarchal elements that Hodge mentioned -- they're subtle, but they're present. It makes the culture of Astreiant a believably medieval social structure, but the changes from historical-medieval-European treatment of women make it a more pleasurable read and create an interesting background dynamic -- which, along with the magic and environmental details like the winter-sun, reminds you that this is a fantasy world with historical elements, versus a fantasy tale told in a real-world historical setting.

Entirely separately from the matriarchy, this is a very deliberately-constructed (without being polemic) feminist culture of gender equality -- your stars determine your profession far more than your gender does, and women are shown to be competent pointsmen, advocates, judges, politicians, soldiers, as well as butchers, bakers, apothecaries, and magists.

Add in a believably diverse cast (characters of color are commonly mentioned/described, just as matter-of-factly as Eslingen's pale skin and black hair are noted) and a world where queer relationships are treated just as hetero relationships are, and a culture that is reasonably sex-positive and allows for various types and durations of relationships, and you have a winner.

Don't get me wrong, the plots are twisty and enjoyable, and I love the characters -- this isn't a case where worldbuilding eclipses the writing or the story -- but it's an important part of these books.

Astreiant is a delightful place to visit, in part, because it has real-world flaws and issues (it's not a perfect Utopia), but the treatment of race and sexuality is dealt with in a way that I *wish* I could consistently see in the world that I live in.

Finding a fantasy world to dive into, where I can see these issues dealt with in a well-written, common-sense fashion, is a pleasure. It's nice to read stories where people who look and love like me aren't erased, versus the straight-white-European-standard-fantasy-setting that has been so common in the books I've encountered in my lifetime.

I'm impatiently waiting for "Fairs' Point" now! :D

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