1995’s Point of Hopes is the first novel in Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett’s Astreiant series.
The great and powerful of Chenedolle are distracted by matters of state: the childless queen has yet to settle on a designated heir. The people of the great city of Astreiant have a far more down-to-Earth concern.
Someone is stealing their children.
Pointsman Rathe starts out looking for a single missing apprentice, but soon realizes that the problem is larger than it first seemed. More than eighty of the city’s children have vanished. A few runaways are to be expected … but this sudden spike in disappearances is clearly due to something other than dissatisfied youths who seek new lives.
While Rathe is at a loss to explain what is going on, the good people of Astreiant have settled for time-tested explanations. Astreiant is a great trader city, with a sizeable population of minorities and newcomers. As always, they are eminently suitable as scapegoats. For now, the citizens are content to pass rumors and side-eye newcomers. But it is only a matter of time before suspicion turns into violence.
Rathe can think of several explanations for abductions, none of them good. But the usual reasons (sale as slaves, stocking brothels) are easily ruled out. Eliminating conventional villainy leaves only the unconventional. There is one feature common to all the missing person reports, a feature that suggests a villainy that is both unconventional and very ambitious.
Unless Rathe figures this out SOON, he may never be able to recover the missing children.
Previous readers have proposed many pre-modern European kingdoms as the model for Chenedolle. Language and culture suggest France, Holland, or possibly Italy. That is, if the country were accustomed to two suns in the sky and if magic were commonplace 1. Oh, and if it exhibited a suspiciously modern tolerance for non-normative sexual orientations and egalitarian gender roles. Minor differences, right?
While this secondary world is more egalitarian in some ways than the real pre-modern Europe, in other ways it is just what one would expect. Society is stratified by class; xenophobia is alive and well. The well-off and nobly born routinely evade punishment for breaking laws otherwise strictly enforced. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Although magic plays an important role in the novel, the focus is on Rathe’s investigation. The book is essentially a police procedural, wherein the route to a successful resolution isn’t casting a “reveal dark plots” spell, but a painstaking process of talking to people, looking for evidence, and thereby gathering enough information to solve the case.
Rathe eventually realizes that he does not have much time to investigate; the mysterious player on the other side of the game board is nearing success. Many authors would have gleefully leaped on a “ticking time bomb” scenario to justify extreme measures. Scott and Barnett refuse to turn Rathe into a torturer; he will succeed or fail using conventional, legal methods. Yay Rathe! Yay authors!
Fans of procedural mysteries 2will enjoy this.
Please email corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com.
1: It is probably a category error to wonder about the dynamics of a binary star system in a secondary fantasy universe. The two stars could, for example, be two living gods who are unbound by Newton’s laws. On the off-chance that the twin stars are stars and not something else, the story suggests that the stars might be orbiting each other, with an inhabited world orbiting the pair, in a circumbinary orbit.
2: I gather later books in the series venture into romance. This particular volume is as (un)romantic as New Brunswick 3.
3. New Brunswickers can protest in comments.