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.


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