The Steerswoman series (books 1-4), by Rosemary Kirstein

>> Tuesday, September 05, 2017

I picked up the first in the Steerswoman series after reading a review in (this is a site I don't see mentioned much at all, probably since it's pretty low-key, but I've been following it for many years it's led me to quite a lot of wonderful books, mostly in the fantasy/sci-fi and non-fiction genres). I had never heard of Rosemary Kirstein and never heard of this series before reading the review. Having finished all 4 available books now, I can tell you they should be much better known!

The books were written over quite a long period. The first two came out in 1989 and 1992, while the last were published in 2003 and 2004. And I really should note here that the series is not yet complete (I didn't know that when I started, as I only read the review of book 1). We do have a fair bit of resolution and closure by the end of book 4, so it still feels satisfying, but if you don't want to get into a series that might never been completed (I think Kirstein is supposed to be working on another book, but it's been 13 years...), this might not be for you.

Onto the books themselves, then! They are set in a world that feels vaguely medieval. Rowan, our main protagonist, is a Steerswoman. Steerswomen are part of an order devoted to seeking out, sharing and preserving knowledge. Some of their number work in archives, doing mostly the preserving part, but Rowan is one of the many who spend their time travelling. She talks to people and finds out stuff, basically, which she then makes sure is written down and gets to the archives. If she finds anything interesting or remarkable, her job is to investigate it and understand it, using her extensive training about how to think and reason.

Steerswomen have some fascinating rules about how they operate. They must answer truthfully any questions they are asked. In exchange, anyone they interact with must, in turn, answer Steerswomen's questions just as truthfully. If anyone refuses to answer a question, or the Steerswoman realises they have lied, then that person is placed under the Steerswomen's ban. No Steerswoman will answer any of their questions. This is a world where the Steerswomen's knowledge is considered extremely valuable (they are welcomed pretty much everywhere and will often not have to pay for anything), so the ban is something most people want to avoid.

The exception are the wizards. The wizards are the only ones in this world who have magic, and they hold themselves apart. They are extremely powerful, and operate sort of as a kind of nobility, the ones who control territory and have carved up the entire country amongst themselves. The wizards refuse to answer any questions from Steerswomen, and no one knows what they're about. They're, as a class, all under the ban.

So, that's the setup. As the first book starts, Rowan is puzzling over some strange flat blue jewels she's found over the years. They're like nothing she's seen elsewhere, and she's very intrigued by the pattern of where they've been found. It seems almost as if they've been flung with great force and from a strange point of origin. As she begins to investigate in earnest, it becomes clear wizards are trying to kill her. And it's just as clear this has got something to do with the jewels, which only makes Rowan more determined to find out what they are.

Right at the start of the book, Rowan meets an Outskirter named Bel. Bel owns a belt with some of the blue jewels encrusted in it, and it's her information about where those were found that leads to Rowan deciding to investigate properly -and consequently, puts the wizards after her. Bel is intrigued by the whole thing, and suggests she join Rowan on her travels for a while. The Outskirters are a nomadic people who live in, well, the outskirts of the 'civilised' world. They are known for being fierce warriors, and those of the Inner Lands who leave close to the edge fear them, as they are prone to raiding. Someone like Bel is useful to have around when people are trying to kill you, plus, Rowan recognises and likes the curiosity and intelligence in Bel.

Later on they're also joined by a young man named William, who comes from a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. William has managed to teach himself some magic, and is determined to parlay that into a better life and become a wizard's apprentice.

The books all follow Rowan, sometimes with Bel and/or William, sometimes not, as she works to solve the mystery of the jewels. And what she finds out is quite earthshattering, something that will change her entire conception of how her world works.

It's a fabulous series. The worldbuilding is fresh and complex, and really intriguing, which I hope will be obvious from my description above. But what really makes these books are the characters. The worldbuilding and revelations are perfectly integrated into the story of characters who feel well-developed and who we come to care about very deeply. It's not just about what we find out, it's about the process, and about how that affects people and their worldview.

Rowan is just awesome. She's intelligent and determined and brave. I loved her complete devotion to knowledge, because it's driven by a very ethical and idealistic and, well, humanistic worldview. She's devoted to knowledge because she believes it will make people's lives better, and because she therefore believes they have a right to it. I just loved seeing her think. She's an extremely logical person, and Kirstein made me believe in the thought processes that led her way, way out of her sphere of experience and into the completely inconceivable.

Bel is also fantastic, and makes a perfect foil for Rowan. She's just as intelligent, but more intuitive, more adventurous. She brings Rowan back to Earth when she occasionally goes off into the abstract plain, and her real-world knowledge and understanding of people are crucial in helping Rowan achieve her mission.

Book 1, The Steerswoman, functions as set-up and introduction, but without it feeling like mere worldbuilding. There is a proper plot and we get enough resolution, and we also find out some initial answers (e.g. we find out what the jewels are and have a pretty good idea of where they came from). So it's one where, even if you decide not to go on, you'll have had some satisfaction if you stop there. But you really shouldn't stop there, because...

Book 2, The Outskirter's Secret, is by far the best out of all four. I'm not sure how Kirstein gets it to work so well, because the set-up is not necessarily promising. Having found some answers in the previous book, Rowan decides she needs to go visit the area where the jewels in Bel's belt were found. This is way beyond the civilised world, in an area of the Outskirts that is remote even to Outskirters themselves. It's a dangerous journey, so she joins Bel's tribe, which is headed in that general direction, for part of the way.

There is a lot of travelling here, and a lot about Rowan exploring Outskirter culture and customs. That's the bulk of the book. That can be episodic and boring, but here, it absolutely isn't. It's all fascinating and gripping, and there are several moments that brought me close to tears (the scene where new people are brought into the clan, and the way the recitation of ancestors worked to do that... wow!). And then we come to the resolution of the book, which was just awesome, full of danger and massive revelations, and left me gasping in astonishment. It's a wonderful book, and one where, weeks later, I still relive certain scenes.

Book 3, The Lost Steersman, was a bit of a letdown, after the wonder that was The Outskirter's Secret. Rowan is back to the Inner Lands, and stops at one of the Archives. The Steerswoman who was supposed to be in charge of it has died and no replacement has been sent, which is a problem, since the woman had done a piss-poor job of organising and preserving new material. Rowan's efforts to sort out the records, while finding anything that will help with her mission, are interrupted by increasingly frequent attacks on the town by monsters from the Outskirts, and Rowan is determined to use her skills as a Steerswoman to help the town survive.

There's a lot of good stuff here. I liked Rowan's conflicted relationship with the townspeople. They were used to the previous Steerswoman, who might have been terrible at her job, but was the beating heart of town life. When Rowan comes in, with her efficiency and proper Steerswoman attitude, they resent her. I also loved seeing Rowan using her logic to solve the problem of the monsters. Unfortunately, at one point the book becomes all about the monsters, and there's a much-too-long section of exploration related to them. There's also the Lost Steersman of the title (yes, there are some male ones, although not many at all). All in all, although enjoyable enough to read, this one felt like a bit of detour, with little progression on the overarching plot.

Book 4, The Language of Power, brings us back to the main plot. Rowan has realised she needs to find a particular wizard, and the book builds up to a major confrontation. The focus here is in what we find out about the wizards and what they do, and there are many, many revelations here about the main plot (even if not everything is resolved, Rowan does get a long way towards understanding). For the first time since book 1, we get Rowan working together with both Bel and William (who's spent several years working with the wizards and has learnt a whole lot), which felt lovely.

I think my favourite element about this book is (again!) seeing Rowan using her reason to grasp stuff that is just out of her experience completely. Kirstein manages to make it feel believable. It's not easy, and yet when Rowan makes leaps, it feels plausible. It was great fun to read.

And now we get into a more spoilery part, which is one of the main attractions of the series: the particular idea it explores. I'll mark this section with a spoiler warning, but I will say that it was obvious to me that this was the theme being explored from relatively early in the first book, so it's not something that will ruin the books if you find out.

Ready? Spoiler starts: So, basically, Kirstein is playing with Arthur C. Clarke's third law, which states that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Turns out that this is some sort of post-apocalyptic world, where the secrets of the extremely advanced technology of the civilisations that came before were somehow (and we don't quite learn how yet) preserved by a small group of people, the wizards. Those people have kept a monopoly over that knowledge, and turned it into the basis of their power.

It's a simple premise, but it lets Kirstein do so, so much. There's the contrast between the Steerswomen's attitude to knowledge and that of the wizards. There's the fascinating process through which theories are formed and then accepted about the unexplained. And in almost opposition to that, there's the exploration of the power of logic and reason in the face of the same unexplained. It's beautifully done, and I got enormous amounts of satisfaction from it.Spoiler ends.

I was also particularly impressed by how Kirstein handled a main character who knows less than the reader. As soon as we cotton onto the basics of what's going on, we're able to make very good guesses about explanations for certain things that leave Rowan and her friends baffled. Seeing them gradually almost stumble towards what is obvious to us could have felt frustrating. It never is. Instead, I felt wonder and admiration for Rowan's sharp, sharp mind.

In sum, read this. It's worth it.


Book 1, The Steerswoman (1989): B+

Book 2, The Outskirter's Secret (1992): A-

Book 3, The Lost Steersman (2003): B

Book 4, The Language of Power (2004): B+


Marianne McA,  5 September 2017 at 10:30  

Well, you sold me on this, so I headed over to Amazon, who helpfully informed me that I bought the first in July of last year. (Maybe you mentioned that you'd been reading it?)

I know I haven't read it, but I don't remember even seeing it on my kindle, so I shall go investigate. (July was daughter's wedding month: maybe in the post-wedding stupor I sent it to dh's kindle by mistake.)

Still, a nice surprise.

Barb in Maryland 5 September 2017 at 22:55  

I read the first two back in 2003 or so (when they were reprinted to match the third book)and quite enjoyed them I don't remember making it all the way through the 3rd one and somehow missed the 4th one altogether. I may have to track them down. You've reminded me how much I liked the world and Rowan.
Your spoiler was spot on. I do remember all the little 'aha, so that's what it is' moments as I was reading the first one.

Rosario 6 September 2017 at 06:34  

Marianne: LOL, if amazon didn't do that, I'd have bought so, so many books more than once! I read this earlier this year so I don't *think* I would have been speaking about it last year. I did buy it a few months before reading, so maybe I did mention that? Who knows! Anyway, hope you enjoy it!

Barb:I think I started book 3 right after finishing 2. After that ending, I NEEDED to know what was going to happen next! And yes, those 'aha' moments were really satisfying, weren't they? :)

Marianne McA,  24 September 2017 at 00:38  

Finished them now: I think I liked book 3 a little more than you did, but that may have been a reverse expectation thing - that I knew you hadn't liked it as much, so was expecting it to be worse than it is.

But, yes, really good series.

(Re the spoiler, do you think necessarily post-apocalyptic? I hadn't thought of it quite that way. I'm also really intrigued by Slado - I don't understand why he acted the way he did in Book 1, nor why the Steerswoman felt so confident of his motivations, and I'm wondering if that will be less clear-cut than we have been led to believe.)

Thanks for the review.

Rosario 24 September 2017 at 07:13  

Marianne: Oh, so glad the series worked well for you!

On the spoiler: I kind of assumed post-apocalyptic when I wrote the review, but since then I've been thinking of similarities with a certain Sharon Shinn series, and wondering if it might not be a settlement in a new planet situation. The stuff in the Outskirts certainly sounds more like terraforming than anything else. Was that were your mind was going as well?

As for Slado, yes, I don't think we really know exactly why he's doing what he's doing. What he's doing, that's relatively clear, but not really what he's trying to accomplish. I'm hoping we won't have to wait too long for the rest of the series, but fear we might.

Marianne McA,  24 September 2017 at 23:49  

Major Spoilers in this comment.

I'm assuming new planet - that there is no moon although they have an idea that there was one once, that the history of the occupied lands is reasonably short (in that the Outskirters can recite their lineage back to the first women) - just the fact the wizards are called Crew - so for me the question would be whether this is the last remnant of humanity escaping from some cataclysm on earth, or whether these are colonists and earth still exists.

I had thought that the behaviour of the wizards suggests the latter - the wizard who changed after he observed whatever he saw in the night skies - he was pleased by it, and started training the children in astronomy - I think he thought he had found Earth, or seen something originating from Earth. I can't think what else he could be seeing that wouldn't cause him alarm, if Earth was known to be a dead planet. Though now I'm writing this, I'm thinking - another potentially viable planet?

As for Slado, Rowan just seemed to jump to the conclusion that he was an evil mastermind really quickly, and ahead of the facts. And his actions in trying to annihilate Rowan seem (literally) overkill. Which could be less-than-stellar writing, at the start of the series. But Kirstein has used Surprise!-this-character-is-not-who-you-thought-they-were! enough times that I'm now suspicious of everyone.

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