Point of Sighs by Melissa Scott

astreiantThis book was a delightful surprise–not the fact that it was so good, but the fact that it exists. I read the first three books in Scott’s delightful Astreiant series last summer, and assumed that would be it. Scott and her partner wrote the first two books way back in 1990s and early 2000s. After her partner’s death, Scott wrote another one in 2014. I had no idea she had plans to write more, so when this one popped up on my Goodreads feed, I actually squealed in happiness.

The series centers on two men, Rathe, a pointsman (read: cop) and his lover Eslingen, once a mercenary solider and now a member of the newly-formed City Guard. The books are basically murder mysteries/police procedurals set in a truly wonderful fantasy world. Sometimes there’s magic. There’s also the very sweet and understated romance subplot.

Like the previous books, Point of Sighs is a slow burn. It begins with a murder, and meanders through the investigation, as Rathe and Eslingen try to figure out what’s going on. There’s cutthroat tea merchants, an angry river goddess, precinct politics, creepy underground tunnels, and a lot of dreary rain and cold autumn winds. The tension doesn’t really kick in till about 2/3 of the way through, and the book ends with an exciting and dramatic climax, during which I couldn’t stop turning pages.

The slow burn is worth it, for the same reasons I loved all the other books in this series, which were similarly quiet and understated: the characters, and the world. I can’t say enough about how much I love this world. Astreiant comes to life on the page: the scents and sights and colors, the winding streets, the food stalls, the bathhouses. It’s as vivid a world as I’ve ever read about. The details are rich and specific–the various tea blends, the nature of each neighborhood from the river warehouse district to the wealthy merchant’s quarters, the fruits sold by street vendors, the layout of the river bridges. Scott takes her time describing this place, and she makes it feel unquestionably real.

It’s not just the details of the city that come to life, either. Everything about this world is layered and complicated and well thought-out. The politics of the city and the wider world, the culture, the day-to-day operations of the pointsmen, the magic, the mythology and history of the place. From the way that astrology governs lives to the wax tablets Rathe uses to take notes to the brisk trade in broadsheets (read: newspapers and tabloids) that goes on throughout the day–it’s all just so real. Much of this book concerns ordinary things: Rathe interviewing witnesses, Rathe and Eslingen eating dinner and discussing the events of their day. It’s surprisingly captivating, and that’s largely due to the world itself. It’s just a delight to sink into.

It’s also very definitely a feminist book, despite the the two leads being men. Women hold many positions of power (Rathe’s boss, for instance, is a woman). Women do everything that men do. There are no gendered professions. There are powerful women in politics, in the trades, and in the vast underground network of criminals. I especially appreciate this bit. Women are and do everything in this world. They are both moral and immoral. They are not all good. They are all equal, and they are seen.

Scott also does a really lovely thing where “woman” becomes the default term, rather than “man”. Rather than saying “this rain is enough to chill a man to his bones,” for example, Eslingen might say, “this rain is enough to chill a woman to her bones”. It felt very natural, and not at all forced. There’s also a lovely word for a same-sex partner: leman. Some people get married; others have leman. Everyone recognizes your relationship, whatever kind it is. Just another reason to love this world and all its quirks and details.

Point of Sighs is a quiet, satisfying read. Rathe and Eslingen are both solid, consistent, and consistently interesting characters. It reminded me that it’s possible to write books primarily about men that do not erase women. I wish I didn’t need that reminder, but our world has a long way to go before we achieve the kind of gender equality that exists in Astreiant.

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