Scott, Melissa, & Lisa A. Barnett (2001). Point of Dreams. New York: Tor.

Reviewed 08 March 2001

Point of Dreams (cover) On her own, Melissa Scott writes sophisticated hard science fiction, such as her excellent Dreaming Metal (4 stars). With her partner Lisa Barnett, however, she writes sophisticated Renaissance-flavored fantasy. The Armor of Light (3 stars) concerned an alternate history in which Philip Sydney and Christopher Marlowe survive their respective deaths; Sydney becomes both Marlowe's patron and the most powerful sorceror in England. Point of Hopes (3 stars) continues the Renaissance theme, this time in a constructed world1 in which magic (with a strong leavening of astromancy) works, but not all that easily. This latter volume is the predecessor of Point of Dreams.

Once again, this appears to be a mystery. Philip Eslingen and Nico Rathe are again at the center of efforts to foil a convoluted conspiracy far more serious than it appears from the initial's clue appearance. The plot begins with Rathe (now adjunct point at Point of Dreams—hence the title) worrying about the death of a respected bureaucrat that has been put down to an unknown causes, but Rathe smelled murder. Eslingen next loses his job (again), and his lodgings. Through an uneasy, but not quite contrived, chain of events, Eslingen is hired as a combat master to help stage a ceremonial play that includes members of the nobility in the cast. And then, the fun begins…

Considered only as a mystery, Point of Dreams is quite ordinary. The puzzle is not particularly difficult to figure out well before Rathe does. Clues are laid out with a somewhat heavy hand. The denouement seems drawn straight from a stereotypical Regency romance. This last element is the real clue needed to understand this book, for it is not a mystery: it is a parody or satire.

Like any core Regency novel, the book is filled with trysts—although at the PG13 level—and an attempt to seduce the hero by a former lover. The book itself, however, is certainly not PG13—at least, not in the eyes of any watching fundamentalists, for there is not a single heterosexual relationship depicted in the novel. This passage should give a taste of one of the racier aspects of the book:

He swung back at once, straining his eyes to see through the gloom, caught the hint of movement among the scenery stored toward the back of the tier. He took a breath and moved toward it, wishing he had his halberd, or even his bated sword, and the sound came again. It was coming from behind the tallest of the shrouded pieces, and he stepped carefully around it, trying to move silently on the hollow floor. Mage-light startled him, a lantern turned low and carefully set to throw light on a property couch—part of d'Aurien's furniture, from the Drowned Island, Eslingen realized, and stifled a laugh—that had been carefully freed of its wrappings, and on that couch the two landames locked in a passionate embrace. Txi's hair was falling loose from its elaborate knot, her eyes closed in delight as de Vannevaux buried her face between the other woman's breasts. Txi's own hands were under de Vannevaux's skirts, and Eslingen took a quick step backward, embarrassed and embarrassingly aroused. (230–31)

I'm afraid that's as racy as things get. But imagining the reaction of individuals militantly opposed to "alternative lifestyles" as these relationships are described matter-of-factly—in a context suggesting not just social acceptability, but almost preference—was nearly as much fun as reading the book itself. All the trappings of a Regency romance are there: the obsessions with fashion, the obsessions with station, the obsessions with, well, obsession. That stereotype gets turned on its head in Point of Dreams. The underlying subtext is not very subtle: that love and relationships are between people—not gender roles.

However, it's almost insulting to compare Point of Dreams to Regency dreck. For one thing, the writing in this book is substantially better than one finds in a Regency or Regency-style commercial romance.2 Although Scott and Barnett are a bit heavy-handed with the clues, they are much less so with interpersonal relationships ("romantic" or otherwise) and general descriptions. For example, although the characters are obsessed with clothing and what clothing says about the wearer, they act in character and vitiate the need for infodumps.

For another, Point of Dreams exists in a self-consistent world. The characters fit there, the technology (magical and mechanical) is consistent with the economic structure, the politics fit all of the above, and the flavor of 1560s Milan and Venice is palpable without being overwhelming or cloying. Further, unlike so many contemporary fantasy novels, and Regencies for that matter, the characters do not spout late-20th-century American ideals in response to the evilly repressive aristocracy. That in itself is a pleasant difference.

Overall rating: 3 stars
Very Good.
Point of Dreams is an interesting, and thought-provoking, twist on romance novels, and particularly Regencies (which, admittedly, I detest, but as much for their obsessions and faint odors of cloying authenticity as their themes). Whether intentionally or not, it operates as a satire of the excesses of the Regency. It's not biting or vicious enough to be a refutation, nor is it for homophobes. But neither of those is necessarily a fault!

1.  I've always detested the term "imaginary world." By any reasonable interpretation of the term, every piece of fiction, with the possible exception of fictionalized accounts of historical events, is in an "imaginary" world. One of the most fully realized imaginary worlds in recent fiction is Scott Turow's Kindle County in his legal "thrillers" (although they're far to cerebral to be just "thrillers"). Alternate histories, a staple of speculative fiction for at least half a millenium—for example, More's Utopia can be viewed as an alternate history—are also "imaginary worlds," although usually not treated as such by critics and reviewers. Instead of tweaking an existing world, a "constructed world" is essentially invented as a whole. Middle Earth, Zimiamvia, and Annares are constructed worlds. So is that of Point of Dreams.

2.  One must distinguish among "romance," from greeting-card nonsense to near-pornography; romance, the commercial publishing category, of which the Regency is a subtype; and Romance, the literary progenitor of what most people call "the novel" (it's not unified enough to be "the" anything, except perhaps "fiction bigger than a breadbasket"). Going to adjectives doesn't help, because that brings in the Romantic period in the arts (roughly 1810–70, although the period seems to be substantially different for different art-forms). All references to romance in this review are to the publishing category, except those inside quotation marks, which refer to the first use/misuse of the word.

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