Recent Reading: Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott and Lisa A Barnett

It was, they all agreed later, a fair measure of Rathe’s luck that he was on duty when the butcher came to report his missing apprentice.

Remember that one? It’s the first line of Point of Hopes, which I included in a first-line post a week or so ago.

The situation is simple: a lot of children – ages about eight to thirteen – are being kidnapped. Nicholas Raithe is a member of the city guard, which for some reason are called “points,” and I never really did figure out what “claiming a point” on someone entails or why the guardsmen want to do it. Are they paid per point? Is it a marker of status with their peers? Both? Pointsmen take an awful lot of bribes, too; this is a city where the concept of police is pretty new and still being worked out.

Okay, so: this novel stands out for me in two major ways:

a) Wow, the worldbuilding, and

b) Gosh, there’s whole lot of story wrapped around what is essentially a very scant plot.

Okay, the worldbuilding.

You know how one mark of not-great worldbuilding is names that are all over the place? Like, someone’s named Terasannion and then another character is named T’t’ling and a third character is named, I don’t know, Hope Trueblood, and then another one is named Robert Bateman. That’s generally a terrible thing to do. Well, Point of Hopes is kind of an exception to this rule, because the city of Astreiant is presented as a melting pot sort of city, inhabited by people of diverse nationalities. The only thing that bothered me – and it did bother me – was the inclusion of names like “Nicolas” and “Phillip.” The world is so unlike ours that it seemed just plain weird to have contemporary names like that thrown in with names like . . . let me pick out a handful . . . okay. First names for women: Gaucelm, Mijan, Ashiri, Housseye, Aadje,  and my personal favorite by a mile, Trijntje. I never want to hear anyone complain about the names I give characters again. Trijntje, give me strength! I love the way that looks on the page, but can you imagine an audiobook’s narrator hitting that one? Last names include things like b’Estorr. Obviously that’s from a completely different naming tradition.

So, obviously the names alone announce to the reader that this is a secondary world fantasy. Then at first glance, it’s a medieval-ish European-ish type of setting. Except with little gargoyles that play kind of a pigeon role in the city. But wow, then you learn how important astrologers are and figure out that the metaphysics are very different. It’s as though Scott and Barnett decided to take a medieval understanding of astrology, give it a couple of twists, throw in a little alchemy, and run with it as far as they possibly could. I enjoyed this so much. Want to be a butcher? Well, do your stars suggest that would be a good job for you? Want to be a merchant-venturer? Oops, sorry, your stars say you’re likely to die by water, so you may want to avoid ocean travel. These things aren’t just beliefs. All this metaphysical stuff is true. Very nice worldbuilding element. Plus there are ghosts (not important) and necromancers (one is a fairly important character). And duelists go mad if they kill too many people? That’s not very important either and never discussed, so who knows why they go mad or what form that madness takes. The metaphysics is cluttered, is what I’m saying.

There’s a complicated political situation too. I won’t go into it except to say that astrology is important there as well and in some ways this is the least believable element. I mean, characters tell each earnestly, “No one would do something so terrible just for political reasons,” and although I don’t think I laughed out loud, I might have. Uh huh. No one ever does anything really awful and dangerous merely to seize political power. Who ever heard of such a thing? Anyway, this is all background stuff that rarely becomes foreground, except right at the end.

Let me see. Well, there’s an organized crime lord, I guess, although he doesn’t seem that criminal, really. Most of his business seem pretty legitimate. We meet quite a few pickpockets and so on; when one of the protagonists is a guardsman, it’s perhaps not surprising we get a good look at the seamy side of town. Very few important characters are financially really well off; this is a book that presents the working poor very well, which is rather rare in fantasy as a whole. Technology . . . not quite medieval-standard. Guns have just been invented, flintlocks and matchlocks, I think, and they don’t sound like they’re topnotch examples of their type, either.

All right, hopefully that gives you a reasonable feel for the type of world. Now, the characters. Nicholas Rathe is one protagonist. The other is Philip Eslingen, a military guy who came up through the ranks and was just laid off from a disbanding unit. They bump into each other now and then, but Rathe is investigating the kidnappings and Eslingen is basically just trying to earn a living in a city where everybody’s on edge because of all the kidnappings, looking for someone to blame. Foreigners, maybe, like Eslingen. From there the story sloooooowly unfolds. The book offers 420 pages of small type, the kind I definitely cannot read any longer without reading glasses. About halfway through, Eslingen finds himself at loose ends, Rathe suggests he take a job with the crime lord, even though neither of them actually believes is involved with the kidnapping. But just in case, Eslington can keep an eye out. This happens about halfway through the book, and only then do people start putting pieces of the puzzle together. Slooooowly.

Good thing this isn’t a murder mystery, because the bad guy’s plan has to do with magical stuff the reader isn’t told about until right at the end, so there’s no way for the reader to work out what is really going on. The prologue is misleading, if you read it. Which I didn’t, until the end. I did look at it right at first, but it was boring and I wanted to get to the kidnapped children. After the fact, the prologue still strikes me as basically boring and unnecessary. But the point I actually want to make here is: the bad guy is really scary, I guess, but he is summarily dealt with in a few pages, the children are rescued – luckily none of them were killed – and there you go, the end.

That’s what I mean by a lot of story wrapped around a scant plot. I’m not entirely certain I’ve ever read a novel that gave so much attention to the daily life of the characters and so little to the Big Bad. This was basically fine with me; I’m just saying it was somewhat strange to get to the end and think: that’s it? Problem solved?

As a writer . . . as a writer, I totally understand this. I’m pretty sure the authors like the characters and the world and wanted to show off both, with the villain an afterthought to justify writing the whole thing. Certainly that’s how it reads: as an extreme example of a venue novel. I mean, a let-me-show-you-my-cool-world novel. With characters. And then, a very distant third element: the bad guy’s nefarious plot.

Final note: Romance. There isn’t any. Just very tiny hints that there could be something if the story continues. Which it does: there are several books in this series.

Who would like this book:

Well, if you’re into great worldbuilding and you’re not in a rush, sure, give it a try. Especially if you would like kind of a cozy fantasy, a low stress, meandering journey to a happy ending. It’s pretty clear the children are all going to turn out to be fine, at the end, or at least I thought the authors sprinkled in plenty of hints to that effect. Also, obviously, if you would like a romance-free story, here you go.

Who might not like this book:

YA has trained a generation or two of readers to expect snappy plots. If that’s what you’re used to, this will certainly be a different reading experience. Even I found it uncomfortably slow at times, and I like slow-paced novels. The dialogue is perfectly good, but not sparkling with wit – another factor that contributes to the slow feel of the story, because witty dialogue produces a faster feel to almost any story. Although Point of Hopes is good and I enjoyed it quite a bit, it does not imo have a lot of emotional heft. The characters are sympathetic and appealing, but perhaps not that deep emotionally. That could be because they are seldom put in really awful positions and when they are, those situations are promptly resolved. Definitely think cozy, rather than haunting or tortured or angsty or however you’d put the reverse of cozy.

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10 thoughts on “Recent Reading: Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott and Lisa A Barnett”

  1. I love that it was the name “Trijntje” that you tripped over, because that’s actually a perfectly respectable our-world Dutch woman’s name/nickname. I think the setting is vaguely based on early renaissance Netherlands and the Hanseatic League, and it’s partly the names that give it that feel. One of my favourite series – the emotional stakes are occasionally raised in later books, though generally not for too long.

  2. Kristi, neat, I had no idea. T r i j n t j e … no, I can’t manage it. It does look fabulous. Now that I know it’s a real name, I wonder if I can find an audio pronunciation online?

  3. I might try looking this one up, or — perhaps more likely — scan what people have to say about the series and see if there’s a better entry point.

    Important element to Dutch spelling: “IJ” is a dipthong pronounced as a long “I” — so Rembrandt van Rijn? His last name comes from the river we spell “Rhine”, and can be said the same way. It looks even weirder when it comes first, and the letters get capitalized together, IJssel. Obviously, J can have different pronunciations in other contexts; I’d guess that second one is kind of a weak Y, so “-ye” or “yeh”.

  4. I think Kristi is quite right about the setting! It’s a little more specific than generic medieval-ish, which is part of why I like it, I think. I found the first book the best of the ones I’ve read in the series so far, but have enjoyed all of them. Melissa Scott seems to be a sadly overlooked/underknown writer!

  5. I read and liked this one a long time ago, but haven’t reread it. It was indeed the worldbuilding that made it interesting. There wasn’t much in that sort of setting when that one was new. Still isn’t…Although Boykin is working with Hanseatic & Holy Roman Empire stuff in some of her work.

    Looked at the sequels when they appeared and didn’t go on. FWIW, maybe they just weren’t what I wanted any more.

  6. Yes, I bet that is one reason the setting had so much depth — because it’s based on this specific time and place. Excellent basis for the world!

  7. Hi Rachel, this is a good site for hearing the Dutch pronunciation of words, and especially the vowels and diphtongs.

    Dutch has several vowel-diphtongs that are unknown in English, and at the top of the page where the alphabet is linked these are linked separately.
    Several of these are (historically) spelled in two different ways but are pronounced the same: historically there probably was a small difference in sound between AU and OU, but now they sound the same, and one just has to remember which word uses which. EI and IJ (called “short and long y”, for the tail on the j) are pronounced the same, so the word “trein” (= train) sounds the same as Trijn (= a woman’s name derived from Katrijn, from Katherine).

    The ending on -je or -tje is a diminutive, which Dutch uses a lot, not just in women’s names but everywhere. Historically, many Dutch women’s names are derived from men’s names by adding the diminutive; Aad (or Ad, from Adrian) is a man’s name, but Aadje is a woman’s name.
    The -ke ending for Dutch women’s names is an old variation on that diminutive -je, now only seen in names, so Hanneke originally meant little Hanna, and Anneke = little Anna.

    All these diminutive endings have become so much part of the names themselves, no one blinks at calling a large older woman “little” Anna or Trijn or whatever – it’s not just used for little girls, but an integral part of the name, though the names without the endings can be used as well – Hannah and Hanneke are two separate and different names one could choose to give one’s daughter, though with Hans and Hansje the first is for a boy, the second for a girl.

  8. Thank you, Hanneke, that’s so interesting! I’m going to print your explanation and see if I can teach myself those pronunciations when I read the second book in the series, even though I don’t actually mind just recognizing a name without pronouncing it.

  9. When Dutch kids learn the alphabet, xyz is written with dots on the y – in cursive this looks like ij.
    The letter y without dots is called a “greek y”, and only occurs in some loanwords or names – it’s not part of the alphabet of abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxy(=ij)z that kids learn, just as letters with accents aren’t learned as part of that alphabet.

    Dutch typewriters used to have a separate y-with-dots key, as it’s considered one letter – hence both get capitalized if a name or sentence starts with ij, like the river IJssel.

    Then came computers and standardized English keyboards, and to preserve the difference between y-with-dots-on and y without (as the pronounciation is different, and keeping the pronounciation of any letter or diphtong recognisable at a glance is important to Dutch spelling rules), the Dutch ‘long y’ became standardised as ij.

    Queue lots of weird looks from non-Dutch for a name like Trijntje…

    Even more detailed Dutch spelling nerdery, explaining in part why lots of written Dutch looks unpronouncable to foreigners.
    That pronunciation guide I linked to above leaves out the one important rule about long and short vowels, and whether or not a consonant gets doubled.
    A single vowel is long if it’s at the end of a word *or a syllable*. If the vowel is followed by a consonant, the vowel is doubled when it’s long. So the A in STA (stand), STATEN (states, breaking down into two syllables sta-ten), and in STAAT (he stands) are pronounced the same, all three are one long A.

    A single vowel is short if it’s followed by a consonant *in the same syllable*, so POT (pot) is short, but POTEN (paws, breaks down to po-ten) is long. To get the plural pots, with the short O sound, the following consonant gets doubled, without changing the way it sounds: POTTEN (pot-ten, so the first T closes the first syllable and keeps the O short, but the double T is only pronounced once).
    The singular paw with the long o-sound (like in the English word boat) is POOT.

    This doubling helps with recognising where the syllable breaks fall:
    – a doubled consonant always breaks in the middle, and
    – a doubled vowel is always followed by at least one consonant in the same syllable;
    – but a vowel followed by a single consonant plus word-ending loses the consonant to the ending in the syllable breakdown, so that vowel is pronounced long.

    Single to plural pot – potten, poot – poten looks strangely inconsistent unless you know that rule about long vowels at the end of the syllable, and understand the importance the Dutch spelling commision last century put on being able to sound out the word as soon as you read it.
    With multiple diphtongs sounding the same (AU and OU, or EI and IJ) you cannot always guess a Dutch word’s spelling upon hearing it; but when you read a Dutch word (unless it’s a loanword from another language) you can almost always sound it out correctly once you understand these spelling rules.

    Some more details: the long form of I (which sounds like the English ee) is written as IE, not II, and for pronunciation the W is always preceded by a U, unless it’s at the start of a word. So the Dutch word for new is written as NIEUW, but sounds a lot easier than it looks, as it breaks down to three sounds just like the English new: n ie uw.

  10. This is so interesting. I am suddenly tempted to do more with linguistics in a book one of these days. Can’t you see a pedantic linguist character thinking about or explaining tidbits like, “No, no, a doubled consonant always breaks in the middle,” and so on? I enjoy details about real thing — dance, music, whatever — in a story. I’d enjoy a character like that.

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