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.