Point Of Dreams is basically a murder mystery. The city of Astreiant may be in a world where magic works and ghosts walk, but it’s still a mystery. That magic only serves to complicate things for the law enforcers, the Pointsmen, so called because their stations, and perhaps their beats, are known as Points. A point is also what a Pointsman makes where a policeman would say a charge. The people of Astreiant make their words do heavy duty.
The story follows the efforts of a particular Pointsman, Nicolas Rathe, to solve a series of murders in a theater. The murders are all linked to the most important play of the year for the city and the Queen of Astreiant, which means that the murders are complicated by politics and rules of diplomacy. Add the fact that Rathe’s lover, Philip Eslingen, is one of the directors of the play, and the whole case becomes wonderfully messy. There are enough turns and complications in the plot to keep the murderer concealed until the end, without ever being hidden, and the world feels real enough to make you grind your teeth in frustration at the pace of justice.
What makes Astreiant feel so solid are the details that slow down the hunt for the perpetrator and complicate the lives of the theater workers. Scott and Barnett understand that real life rarely allows matters of urgency to push matters of mundane detail to the side, and they use this to add flesh and color to their world. Small gestures of courtesy highlight the matriarchal nature of Astreiant; time-consuming commuting says more about the state of transportation in the streets of Astreiant then the lengthy descriptive passages favored by many fantasy authors. And Rathe and Eslingen’s relationship is blessedly a stable, long-term affair rather than an immature new romance, allowing them both to focus on the details of life in a city with no supermarket. The low-tech atmosphere of the story is greatly aided by having the heroes worrying over how to obtain vegetables during winter, or marveling over flowers blooming out of season. Astreiant feels real, and so the murders in her theatre do too, in spite of their fantastic proportions.
The best aspect of Point Of Dreams is the unity of the writing. Joint efforts like this all too often have the feel of a world created by committee. But the city of Astreiant and the people within are presented as solidly as though created by one author. There’s not a single skip in the storytelling, no point at which I felt a change from author to author. The format of the story, switching between the viewpoints of the two main characters, would certainly allow for it; but Rathe and Philip feel only like two different characters, rather than two different creators. It’s an impressive feat of collaboration.
There’s really only one weakness in Point Of Dreams, but it’s severe. For about the first hundred pages, the story simply isn’t gripping. Rathe and Philip and their relationship are introduced, along with the world they operate in. There are some nicely turned scenes of political maneuvering. There just isn’t any real conflict beyond some small personality clashes, and so there’s nothing to get excited about. Conflict is set up and obviously looming, but there’s no immediacy to it, nothing compelling a reader to turn the page.
Everything does liven up with the first new murder case. The mystery from then on is compelling, adding importance to everything from the characters’ past histories to the layout of Astreiant, but a hundred pages is a little much for a story to linger in the prologue. Worse, much of what’s in the faux prologue really isn’t important to the story. It’s useful to know what a ghost-tide is, but the opening consultation with the astrologer gives no information that really affects the course of the story.
Still, the details that make for a slow start create a richer story overall. To cut out the time-consuming details would be to cut out Astreiant and the fine people that live there. If you want your mysteries short and simple, a quick jaunt from deed to whodunit, Sherlock Holmes awaits on the shelf of your local library. If you want a trip to a foreign country thrown in, pick up Point of Dreams.
(Tor Books, 2001)