If one were to peruse the shelves of a local bookstore, scanning the endless fantasy-series tomes, one would find an appallingly large number of universes with magical underpinnings, peoples, and cultures so similar as to be nearly indistinguishable. While it's hard to credit these bestselling epics with expanding the boundaries of fantasy as a literary form, they've had a side effect which is quite laudable and beneficial for the genre. Namely, their commercial success has made it possible for more original and explorative works to see publication. The thinking is that if even a fraction of the bestseller audience buys a book because it's a fantasy and they suspect it may be similar to the last one they read, a book will succeed. Thus, the pool of fantasy readers is large enough to make these other works economically feasible. However, one can only hope that these potential readers can appreciate a truly original work such as Melissa Scott and Lisa Barnett's latest collaborative effort, Point of Dreams.
Point of Dreams is a sequel to an earlier novel, Point of Hopes, though one can easily enjoy it without reading the earlier volume. Like its predecessor, it is set in the city of Astreiant, capital of Chenedolle. In this late-Renaissance city-state important decisions are driven by the movement of the stars, and news and rumors are passed like wildfire through broadsheets bought by the masses. Here, peace and law are maintained by the Points, a sort of police force. Astreiant is a mixing bowl of guilds, artists, commoners, nobles, mages, and a growing merchant class. It is a world quite familiar, reminiscent of the worlds of Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint or Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana. Yet at the same time it is insidiously original, with marvelous touches such as the daily reliance of people of all classes on astrological magic and the rapid delivery of news and innuendo through the broadsheets.
The story begins with the discovery of a murder. Not a simple murder, but something more complicated. The victim has been dead for some time, and all appearances suggested natural causes at the time of death. Indeed, the entire basis for believing that a murder has occurred springs from the fact that a ghost has not appeared to visit the partner of the deceased at the ghost-tide -- the time of year when the spirits of beloved dead come to visit their living loved ones (or enemies). Despite his absolute belief that a murder was indeed performed in this case, newly promoted and unbribable Adjunct Point Nicolas Rathe is forbidden to investigate by the ruling nobility. Frustrated in his desire to investigate the murder, Nicolas soon finds himself caught up investigating a separate series of deaths centered around a theatre and the acting troupe preparing the midwinter masque, a special play with magical potencies to keep the Queen and the realm healthy for the coming year. Rumors abound that the Queen will name her successor after the masque, but the growing body count, the ghost-tide, and the proliferation of books purporting to have magical qualities all threaten to destroy the masque, the Queen, and even the realm. Nico, with the aid of his partner and lover Philip, unravels the mystery behind the murders and faces the villain behind it all.
Scott and Barnett have packed a lot of detail into a fairly slim volume. They outline a plethora of political agendas held by a wealth of different factions. Each person, each location, is described in clear, crisp detail, providing a vividly complete picture of Astreiant. We learn about the clothing, architecture, and economy of the city through flashes of description. Tidbits of local history and hints of other stories flow throughout. At the same time, the authors explore in great depth the inner workings of a theatre. They describe the creation of elaborate set pieces and the working of mechanical effects machines. They show us the playwright and actors at work in preparation for the performance, and they even help us to understand the trepidation and excitement of a first time player.
Point of Dreams is at times a fantasy of manners, at other times a mystery, at yet other times a swashbuckler, and yet still poetic through it all. Indeed, the setting of the theatre, where much of the key action occurs, brings a lofty, almost Shakespearian sense to the whole piece. They've done a grand job putting together numerous stories-within-stories so that the pieces form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. None of the settings or details seems out of place, and it's clear that they have done their research on everything from clothing to set design to theatre machinery to food.
What I found particularly fascinating about Point of Dreams was its use of an altogether original system of magic. The validity of both the science of astrology and the art of necromancy, which was established in Point of Hopes, has been a magical staple in many other fantasy worlds. What Scott and Barnett have added in Point of Dreams, and what they have built much of their story around, is the art of phytomancy: magic through particular arrangement of flowers. An ancient, reputedly magical, tome called the Alphabet of Desire is at the heart of the action in Point of Dreams. The Alphabet is a combination magical recipe book and book of tales. Particular arrangements of flowers with the power to cause some particular effects are described beside some tale of love or loss. The book, and the magical recipes it contains, are the driving force behind everything we see. The villain uses it to concoct his magic, the playwright who has written the masque has used it as the basis of his play, and the city's masses are snatching up copies of fake Alphabets by the thousands. It would seem such a simple thing to defeat, but our heroes learn that the potency of this magic is such that the wanton destruction of an arrangement can cause just as much damage as the originally intended spell. I've never before seen the use of flowers, particularly the arrangement of flowers, as a tool for magic, and the development of this utterly original concept is to be loudly applauded.
While the technical details of the Renaissance setting and the theatre are suitably impressive, and the unique magical workings a breath of fresh air, this richly imagined world is, as always with Scott and Barnett, only the background for the characters. Rarely does one find work with such nuanced personalities, and stories with such depth of motivation and action. No one, from the briefest-appearing guard to the heroes and villain center stage, is left with too little personality and emotion to seem realistic. Through the use of details such as hand gestures and body language, comparisons of clothing and fashion, speech pattern differences and more, each person who walks across the pages of the book is revealed to be unique. As events occur, the authors often mix in the reactions of a few of those secondary characters present, revealing more about these individuals and about the events themselves.
Our heroes, Nico and Philip, are particularly well developed. They are imperfect, sometimes short-sighted, and they suffer from self-doubt. But they mean well, and are concerned with the consequences of their actions and the pursuit of justice in their society. Their concerns are also personal. Interwoven with their efforts to solve the mystery are their dealings with each other, with their families, and with their friends. Circumstances early in the story force the two men to quicken the growth of their romantic relationship by pushing them to move in together. We watch them struggle with the tension of this stage of a relationship while they try to catch up with the villain. From the sudden discovery of how to spend a quiet evening at home together, to learning how to merge two different attitudes towards neatness, these two men are shown to be much like anyone you might meet. Yet at the same time their exploits, played out across the dramatic scope of the city-state in chaos, make them almost theatrically grand. This carefully balanced portrayal of both the grand and the humble marks these two characters with wonderful depth and feeling.
The villain is also drawn with careful strokes. He is motivated not by the sheer joy of being evil, but by something more melancholy and in many ways honorable. As his story is unraveled piece by piece we come not to hate him, but to sympathize with him. The climax, in which he must face down Nico and Philip, is as theatrical as the rest of the novel, and the outcome, while tragic, is dramatically satisfying.
Scott and Barnett have, with Point of Dreams, produced another stunning winner -- a story of deep human emotion, bound with the string of swashbuckling action, packaged with the magic of phytomancy, and with the entertaining spectacle of the theatre as the bow tied beautifully on top. Sadly, if the previous volume is any indication, you may not want to wait for a paperback version as it may never come. Thankfully, this marvelous work is easily worth the price of the hardcover edition.
Rob Gates is the Editor of Wavelengths Online, a review journal for genre works of special interest to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people. He is also the author of a story appearing in Bubbas of the Apocalypse from Yard Dog Press, May 2001.