RogerBW's Blog

The Steerswoman, Rosemary Kirstein 25 August 2021

1989 fantasy/SF. In a primitive world, Rowan is a Steerswoman, a wandering scholar sworn to answer any question she can. She tries to learn more about strange jewels found in the Outskirts, but it seems that the wizards object…

This is a book and a series with secrets, and one of them is given away by the cover of volume two. I'll try not to do that here.

So what happens is that Rowan falls into travel with Bel, an Outskirter barbarian, and they go by land and sea first to the Archives of the Steerswomen and then in search of the source of the jewels, while various attempts are made on their lives.

But what it's about, well, it's a love letter to the scientific method for a start, and to pragmatic problem-solving. If you have a thing that seems not to make sense, it's because you haven't understood it well enough yet. So restate the problem, take it apart into its bits, decide whether this odd answer means you've gone outside the range where your model applies or is correct but needs to be looked at from a different angle.

The Steerswomen have to answer any question as well as they can, but everyone else has to answer their questions, or come under Ban and not have any questions answered at all. (Yes, there are obvious practical difficulties with this.) Since the Steerswoman are responsible for accurate charts and, often, news of distant places, most people take care to stay on their good side… but the wizards don't care. (And it's lovely to see a fantasy setting where scholarship and magic are separate things.)

On this re-reading, I was struck by the resemblance of the wizards to modern billionaires: they may decide to keep down the dragons or give your town street lighting, but everything they do is because they want to do it, and if they get bored they might just stop. They presumably have politics and power struggles and so on, but what ordinary people know is that they have the Red and the Blue faction, sometimes they change sides, and occasionally they have a war that everyone gets dragged into.

But things are changing. One of the people our heroes meet is a young man who seems to have a natural gift for magic, having invented some techniques without any wizardly training. (Wizards don't take outsiders as apprentices; nobody knows where new ones come from.) Even those jewels indicate that a significant change is happening, though quite how is not at all clear at first.

Combine all that with a pair of well-drawn protagonists, both strongly ethical people but with sufficiently different ideas about what "good" means that they sometimes catch each other's raw edges; other characters, also well-drawn when we see them for more than a moment, and in whom "is an evil person" is not directly correlated with "is opposed to the protagonists"; beautiful writing; and a welcome absence of whining and love triangles; and you may see why this series is a favourite of mine. This book is perhaps a bit heavier on setup than on action, bearing in mind that it has to introduce the world as well as starting to subvert it, but it's still gorgeously written. And a wizard's tower goes boom.

(This book and its sequel The Outskirter's Secret are probably more easily found in the 2003 combined edition The Steerswoman's Road.)

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