It's good to see original fiction from Melissa Scott again after more than a decade of waiting. One of the finest writers of both science fiction and fantasy working in the 1980s and '90s, the author of such memorable books as Dream Ships (1992), Trouble and her Friends (1995), and Shadow Man (1996), she essentially stopped publishing after the appearance of her fantasy novel Point of Dreams (2001), co-authored with Lisa Barnett. Her absence was no doubt due in part to the illness and eventual death of Barnett, her partner of many years, in 2006, not to mention Scott's own health issues. It wasn't until 2010 that her byline appeared again, this time on a series of Stargate Atlantis novels, co-authored primarily with Jo Graham. In doing the necessary research for this review, however, I also discovered (and have already ordered) another original fantasy by Scott, just out and again co-authored with Graham, called Lost Things.
The book under consideration here though, Point of Knives, is the third in a series, the first two co-authored with Barnett, set in Astreiant, a place with much the feel of Elizabethan England, but with magic, and particularly a functioning form of astrology, added in. Scott, who has a PhD in history, has always had a genius for creating lived-in, crisply detailed worlds, whether the setting is another planet or Renaissance England, and her Astreiant is no exception:
The sun was fully up by the time they reached the station square at Point of Hopes, the streets waking to the routines of day. A flock of gargoyles scolded from the midden beside a bakery and a sleepy-looking apprentice was washing the steps of the inn on the corner. (p. 13)
Scott is also particularly interested in the lives of average, everyday working-class folk, people who sweat to earn a living, whether they fix spaceships, or bake bread, or solve crimes, and her characters routinely reflect a spectrum of gender positions. Interestingly, though, with the obvious exception of Shadow Man, which specifically centers on gender complexity, most of Scott's novels are not specifically about either sexual orientation or gender politics. If a character is gay or lesbian, or something more complex, that's just a small part of who they are and never the primary reason they’re in the story.
Such is the case of the twin protagonists of Point of Knives, which chronologically takes place between Point of Hopes (1995) and Point of Dreams. Nicolas Rathe is an Adjunct Point, essentially a police detective, who solves crimes through hard work, careful observation, and just the smallest amount of magic. He's a bit obsessive about his work, doesn't take bribes, and probably has the worst sense of style of any fictional detective since Columbo. Philip Eslingen, on the other hand, is a former soldier, a handsome, if down at his heels foreigner, now working as a bodyguard for Caiazzo, a noted crime lord and merchant (the two occupations not being any more mutually exclusive in Astreiant then they are in our world). The two men met in Scott and Barnett's first Astreiant novel when Eslingen became involved in one of Rathe's cases. Eventually, they became lovers, though the former's position as Caiazzo’s muscle (which ironically enough Rathe found for him) means that there will always be tension between him and the somewhat stiff-necked Adjunct Point. This tension led to their breaking up at the end of Point of Hopes.
The current tale, a novella rather than a full-fledged novel, begins with a death. Rathe is awakened at five in the morning to investigate the murder of a well-known local character and long-retired "summer sailor" (or pirate), Grandad Steen, outside of his place of residence. Following a trail of blood down the alley, Rathe finds himself confronted by another dead body, that of Old Steen, Grandad’s middle-aged son, also a summer sailor. And kneeling by the body in the dark is someone he knows.
"Oh. Hello, Nico." Philip Eslingen sounded more sheepish than anything as he pushed himself to his feet. "I might have known it would be you." (p. 5)
After a few uncomfortable moments, Eslingen is able to clear himself. He's been sent to meet Old Steen by his boss and pick up a package, the specific contents of which he doesn't know, though both he and Rathe assume it is something illicit, and he found Old Steen dead moments before the Adjunct Point arrived. Soon the game's afoot and Rathe and Eslingen are on the trail of the murderer.
At its core, Point of Knives is as much a novel of character as it is a detective story. Rathe and Eslingen dance a complex waltz of attraction, distrust, affection, and regret, never sure when the clues they are following will lead to the revelation of a conflict of interest that will force them to separate or, worse yet, force Rathe to arrest Eslingen. With Grandad and Old Steen dead, the presumptive heir would seem to be Young Steen, another summer sailor, and, of course, himself a suspect. Needless to say, Caiazzo may also have a possible motive. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, appears a woman claiming to be Old Steen's widow and, though no one else has heard of her, she apparently has papers to prove it. It soon becomes clear, however, that one of the dead Steens was in possession of something valuable, something others would kill and perjure themselves to gain control of. Both Rathe and Eslingen have information vital to the case, but their principals, Astreiant's Queen and Caiazzo, may be operating at cross purposes so sharing what they know is a fraught activity. Worse still, politics, treason, a corrupt police commander, professor magists from the local university, and a dangerously magical treasure of gold may also be involved.
Point of Knives is not a major work, per se, but it's great good fun, and serves the dual purpose of both bridging the two more weighty Astreiant novels and giving Scott a comfortable platform from which to resume her career as a solo writer. Jo Graham is a talented fantasist and I look forward to reading Scott's recent collaboration with her, as well as its already announced sequel. Beyond that, however, I look forward to the renewed possibility of reading more of Scott's own original work, whether within the context of the world she and the much missed Lisa Barnett created together, or in other examples of fantasy and science fiction.
Michael Levy teaches English at an obscure Wisconsin university and is a past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.