Scott's and Barnett's previous collaboration, the fantasy-mystery hybrid Point of Hopes, introduced Nicholas Rathe, Adjunct Point (a kind of senior police officer) in the city of Astreiant, part of a fantasy world where astrology and alchemy function as reliably as physics and chemistry. Point of Dreams returns to that world, and to Rathe, caught up in another dangerous mystery.
Every winter in Astreiant, a masque is held. Based on ancient traditions and aligned with the stars, it's integral to the health of the queen and the realm--and more important now than ever, for the queen is soon to announce her chosen successor. This year, the play that's the source of the masque is itself sourced in an ancient text, the Alphabet of Desire, a compendium of flower- and plant-based spells, which most people believe to be a hoax but which may, just possibly, be real.
When a body is found on the rehearsal stage, inexplicably drowned in the absence of any water, Rathe is called in to investigate. He has enough headaches, what with trying to control the craze for flower corms produced by the coming masque, coping with the disturbances of the ghost-tide (a time of year when astrological conjunctions cause the ghosts of the dead to return), and negotiating the complications of a relationship with a new lover; he isn't thrilled at the idea of dealing with theatrical egos and touchy nobles as well. But it soon becomes clear that this is not just a simple revenge or jealousy killing. More deaths ensue, all linked in some way to the masque and its actors. Rathe begins to suspect that someone, somewhere, has a working version of the Alphabet, and is using it to commit murder. But who? And why? It's up to Rathe, with the help of his lover Philip Eslingen, to find out.
Readers of police procedurals will recognize the form of Point of Dreams, if not the details, which are necessarily changed by the fantasy setting. Rathe attends an autopsy (or the alchemical equivalent); he consults various experts, magical and non-; he copes with hostile colleagues and the over-eager press; he reports to his chief (who is sympathetic) and to a board of supervisors (who are not); and in the end, takes matters into his own hands, for a solution that's only just inside the law. Scott and Barnett blend the genres deftly, transposing their mystery plot seamlessly into their magical world, effectively building suspense and scattering both clues and red herrings with panache. The writing is skillful, as is the characterization: Rathe and Eslingen are sympathetic protagonists, and even minor players are very sharp. And theater buffs like me will love the theatrical details, which carry the authority of real experience.
Best of all, though, is the world building. Scott and Barnett have created a setting so densely detailed that it's at times hard to remember you aren't reading about a real place. Astreiant is both hauntingly familiar (reminiscent, to me at least, of 17th century Holland in the grip of the tulip craze) and convincingly alien, a place in which gender roles are comprehensively reversed, same-sex relationships are as common as ordinary marriages, and everything is touched by magic and shaped by the stars. The authors have built a fascinatingly complex astrological/alchemical magic system; they've also (much more difficult) made it convincing as a pseudo-scientific discipline, which works according to consistent, objective rules and is thoroughly woven into the fabric of everyday life, but always holds out the prospect of the wondrous, the dangerous, and the unknown.
Those who haven't read the previous book may find it a bit challenging at first to absorb the plethora of titles, terms, and references, but there's enough background that new readers will quickly find their feet. Both well-crafted mystery and engagingly different fantasy, Point of Dreams is an altogether rewarding reading experience.