Point of Dreams by Melissa Scott & Lisa A. BarnettR
(TOR, $25.95, PG) ISBN 0-312-86782-4
*****
Five hearts Point of Dreams, by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett, follows and - in my opinion - improves upon Point of Hopes, their first mystery. Both are set in an alternate universe where astrology works and ghosts can manifest themselves under the right conditions.

Once again our detective is Nicolas Rathe, an Adjunct Point in the police force of Chenedolle's capital city, Astreiant. Rathe has been moved from the working class station of Point of Hopes to the theatre district station, Point of Dreams, "a lateral promotion if ever there was one," Rathe thinks. His reputation as an astute pointsman has preceded him, so that Kurin Holles, a well-respected lawyer, seeks him out to investigate the death of Holles' leman, an equally well-respected judge.

Rathe soon has another case to pursue, however. This year's midwinter masque is to be a dramatization of "The Alphabet of Desire," a book of recipes for floral arrangements, some of which may be deadly. The masque will feature a large chorus, all of whom are members of the nobility. One of the chorus, the landseur de Rašan, has been murdered, drowned in the middle of a dry stage, with no containers around that hold enough water to drown him. Even in a universe where magic is possible, this is an inexplicable event. And why murder the landseur de Rašan by any method? He seems to be an absolute non-entity, with no close friends and no enemies.

Philip Eslingen is a lieutenant of Coindarel's Dragoons, currently between campaigns and needing work to tide him over. His present job is as a bodyguard of sorts to Caiazzo, an entrepreneur whose investments are frequently on the shady side of the law. Philip met and formed a friendship with Rathe as they worked to solve an earlier mystery (Point of Hopes), but the notoriety that resulted made him too conspicuous to continue working as Caiazzo's knife. Caiazzo has found him a new position instructing the midwinter masque's chorus in the military skills they need to portray an army in the masque.

Eslingen thus finds himself joining Rathe in the theatre district and, in fact, working in the same production as the late landseur de Rašan. Furthermore, and uncomfortably, his sudden change of employment means he finds himself with nowhere to stay overnight. Eslingen and Rathe have become lovers since Point of Hopes, but the affair is still in its early stages, and Eslingen is unsure whether Rathe is ready to share his room with him and whether their relationship can survive such closeness. For his part, Rathe would like Eslingen to report anything unusual he notices at the theatre but wonders, in turn, whether Eslingen will feel comfortable doing so.

Almost as important to the story as Rathe's investigations and his relationship with Eslingen is the setting where it all takes place. Scott and Barnett have built a logically consistent universe. The capital city, Astreiant, brought Elizabeth I's London to mind, with its markets, its guilds, and its river traffic. Its society differs sharply both from Elizabethan England and from ours, however. This is a society where girls are warned to be gentle with their more delicate brothers; where the monarchy, the judiciary, and the city government are the exclusive domain of women; and where everyone's life work is determined by their stars.

Despite the many unfamiliar aspects of Scott and Barnett's world, they provide enough information to allow the reader to detect along with Rathe and Eslingen. The developing affair between Rathe and Eslingen is portrayed charmingly and tastefully. That they are lovers is never glossed over but neither is there anything here to titillate.

One of the advantages of the mystery format is that each book in what I hope will be a series can stand on its own, although Point of Dreams should be a richer experience if Point of Hopes is read first. Six years passed between the publication of Point of Hopes in 1995 and Point of Dreams in February 2001. I can only hope that we will not have to wait another six years to pursue another case with the tenacious Rathe and to learn how his affair with his "black dog," Philip Eslingen, develops.

--Nancy J. Silberstein


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