Saturday, 15 June 2019

Review: The Steerswoman Series by Rosemary Kirstein


I've recently finishing the third and fourth novels in the Steerswoman series. Reading the books was joyful and wondrous, while finishing the fourth book felt rather sad: who knows if the series will ever be completed, and now I have no more Steerswoman books to read...

The Setting & Premise

Rowan is a Steerswoman. She belongs to a group of women who dedicate their life to knowledge and information. They have a code: anyone can ask them any question, and they will answer it to the best of their knowledge. In turn, if they ask someone a question and get a dishonest answer or a refusal to answer, they put a ban on that person and never answer their question again. Rowan travels the world, observing, researching, sharing information. Steerswomen are like Wikipedia and Google rolled into one, in a pseudo-Medieval fantasy(ish) world. And because they are so useful, people generally accommodate and feed them for free.

Their opposite are wizards. Wizards keep secrets and hoard power. In fact, a lot of the magic that wizards do looks suspiciously like it is based on secret knowledge, skills, technology, rather than inherently magical.

Most (but not all) wizards are men. They treat regular people with disdain, and they live in secret or not-so-secret strongholds, forming loose alliances, competing with each other for territory and power, and occasionally fighting entire wars. Wizards trust no one, least of all each other. They rely on fear and brute force to make their way in the world.

Most (but not all) steerswomen are women. They share knowledge, form a loose sisterhood that spans the world, and treat each other (and all people) with respect and openness (until someone acts against them). Steerswomen rely on each other and the power of cooperation.

The Mystery

In the first book, Rowan is curious about a kind of gemstone that is always found entangled with metal. The pieces look too patterned to be natural, but their spread is inexplicable.Soon, her investigation attracts the attention of the wizards, and a grand adventure stumbles into motion...

The Friends

Rowan meets Bel, a fierce warrior from the Outskirter tribes, in the first book, and mutual fascination quickly turns into a partnership, ultimately, a friendship that feels as solid and crucial as any I've ever seen in literature.

Bel is not the only friend: Rowan meets others along the road, spends time among communities, forms bonds with people. Not always automatically: she can be aloof and she can have tunnel vision, focusing on her ideas & research. Sometimes, people find it hard to trust her, especially when the knowledge she brings seems very far removed from people's everyday lives.

The Books

The Steerswoman (1989) is the story of how Rowan and Bel become friends, investigate the secrets of the blue gems, hunted by wizards while chasing after knowledge.

The Outskirter's Secret (1992) is the story of how Rowan journeys into the farthest reaches of the Outskirts, together with Bel, to find the place where a Guidestar has fallen, and to figure out why the wizards are so protective of this secret knowledge. At times it feels like a Western, set on a frontier, but the Outskirter cultures we meet defy expectations.

The Lost Steersman (2003) is the story of how Rowan takes over an outpost of the Steerswomen's organisation - a kind of library - to find clues about what's going on in historical records. It is also the story of her sometimes rocky relationship with the small community where that archive is based, and a big side quest that takes her well beyond the frontier, into the unknown, to places that no one has ever returned from (and reported about), a place where demons live...

The Language of Power (2004) is the story of how Rowan and friends try to find out why one long-dead wizard tried to summon a long-forgotten steerswoman, not long after the Guidestar fell...

The Quality

The Steerswoman series is simply staggering in scope, quality, originality and the joyful reading experience it achieves. Rowan is an explorer-scientist who isn't out to exploit people or knowledge, but to share discoveries and wisdom. She wanders through a world that is interesting, mysterious, and imaginative, populated with people who are sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile, but rarely stupid or mean for the sake of being mean. Sometimes, she faces dangerous people working for wizards (or, rarely, wizards themselves), but not all peril is human or malicious. One of her most serious injuries is inflicted by some kind of dangerous lichen, at another time it is fever and illness that nearly kill her.

The books are well-written, with beautiful prose. The pace isn't always page-turning and breathless - in fact, Rowan sometimes spends a good portion of a book doing archival research or gumshoeing around, pestering lots of people with questions. However, there is from very early on an underlying tension. That tension stays taut throughout all four books, occasionally building up into set pieces of grandiose, nailbiting terror, but always staying in the background, even if Rowan is just having breakfast in an inn somewhere...

Each book is readable as an individual story, but reading the whole series in order is a fantastic experience. To name just one example: in the second book, in the Outskirts, Rowan and Bel encounter different creatures, one of which remains an unseen monster that even Bel is terrified of. So dangerous is the monster that all Bel and Rowan can do is cower in silence and hope they are not found by the creature. And then, in the third book, Rowan hears a sound that suggests one of these monsters - something she has not ever seen and which is so deadly that few who have survive to tell the tale - is in her village, at night, stalking people returning from the pub after a night out. To build up a monster not just within one story or one book, but over the course of two books... it was a heart stopping reading experience and a masterful example of writerly craftsmanship.

Surprisingly, the quality of the books does not really vary: they are all excellent. The price for this quality is the fact that the series is not finished yet. Between books two and three, eleven years passed in out world (but only some months in the story). It's been fifteen years since the fourth book was published - and volumes five and six are being worked on by the writer. To put it another way, the first book was published seven years before the first Game of Thrones novel, the books are shorter, there are only four of them so far (GoT had five volumes of the main story published so far), and it doesn't look like the Steerswoman books have turned their author into a billionnaire, so presumably she has to work on the remaining novels while having a day job and/or a life. Fortunately, these books are written in a way where the modern reader understands a lot more of what's going on than Rowan does, so while Rowan is still trying to unwrap an incomprehensible mystery, the reader isn't left in the dark to the same extent. Even if the series is never finished, you won't feel betrayed on a cliffhanger somewhere.

Still, I hope there are more books to come, and that the series will one day be complete.

The Verdict


If you haven't read this series, buy the books and read them. Now. This is SF/F at its very, very best.

Rating: 5/5, for all the books individually and for the series as a whole.



Monday, 20 May 2019

Review: The Outskirter's Secret by Rosemary Kirstein

The Outskirter's Secret is the second novel in the Steerswoman series. Rowan, the Steerswoman and Bel, her Outskirter / Barbarian companion, continue their quest where the first novel has left off. They are still trying to find out more about the mysterious blue gem & metal fragments that they nearly got killed over in the first book. Now, they are headed into the Outskirts, where life is much harder, civilisation a distant theory, and where the wreckage of a fallen star should be, if Rowan's reckoning is right...

The Outskirter's Secret is still a novel of adventure and questing, a novel about friendship, and a novel about two women taking on the world together while encountering different people and different cultures. However, it is not so much a novel of pursuit and intrigue: Rowan and Bel now know that a chief wizard exists, they know his name, and they know he is their enemy, but there are no more minions in pursuit, and aside from the natural environment, raiders, and vendettas, no one is trying to kill them. Well, no one apart from goblins and demons and lichen camouflaged as rocks and all the other perils of the lands they travel through. So, no chase, but much peril: it's an immensely readable adventure, always interesting and never boring.

The book does recap things from the first novel, but to be honest, I would not want to read it on its own. This is a series where reading the books in order is worth it: both books I've read so far were excellent, and the second builds on the events of the first. It delivers a satisfyingly dramatic climax, and even though the quest is not at an end, we learn more and get a stronger sense of what the wizards' secret might be.

Fantasy literature at its very best - and still ahead of its time (first published in 1992, it feels like it was written in the 2010s...).

Rating: 5/5

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Review: The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein

The Steerswoman is a women-centric fantasy novel, first published in 1989. It seems to have been way ahead of its time, and it feels very contemporary.

Rowan is a Steerswoman. She belongs to a group of women who dedicate their life to knowledge and information. They have a code: anyone can ask them any question, and they will answer it to the best of their knowledge. In turn, if they ask someone a question and get a dishonest answer or a refusal to answer, they put a ban on that person and never answer their question again. Rowan travels the world, observing, researching, trading information. Steerswomen are like Wikipedia and Google rolled into one, in a pseudo-Medieval fantasy world.

Their opposite are wizards. Wizards keep secrets. In fact, a lot of the magic that wizards do looks suspiciously like it is based on secret knowledge, skills, technology, rather than inherently magical.

Most (but not all) wizards are men. They treat regular people with disdain, and they live in secret or not-so-secret strongholds, forming loose alliances, competing with each other for territory and power, and occasionally fighting entire wars. Wizards trust no one, least of all each other.

Most (but not all) steerswomen are women. They share knowledge, form a loose sisterhood that spans the world, and treat each other (and all people) with respect and openness (until someone acts against their interests). Steerswomen rely on each other and the power of cooperation.

So yes, this novel feels contemporary and absolutely relevant. It does not feel like a book written before the internet was even invented.

But enough about the setting. This is really a novel about Rowan, a Steerswoman, and Bel, a warrior women from the Outskirter tribes (barbarians...), travelling together and going on a quest. When they meet, Rowan is trying to find out about a certain kind of blue gemstones, which seem to have mysteriously appeared in the world about 35 years ago. Rowan asks a lot of questions of an Innkeeper, and Bel is there with a few people from her clan. Intrigued by the Steerswoman (and curious about the rest of the world), Bel offers to join Rowan on her travels, and curious about the Outskirter, Rowan agrees. Not long after, they are attacked. Then, things get worse, and Rowan starts to suspect that someone does not want her to find out about those blue gemstones...

It's a novel about two women who are instantly intrigued by each other, and about a friendship that forms even though they are very different in personality, in strengths and weaknesses, in world view. It's a novel about traveling and adventure and facing great dangers, but it's the friendship that gives the novel strength and joy.

I loved the book, from the start to the end. The novel is not all fluffy and cuddly: people die, even children. Tragedies and atrocities occur, and moral ambiguities, too. But our heroes don't mope and wallow: they know how to move on, and do. It's swashbuckling adventure at its best.

The Steerswoman is a brilliant start to a series. It's satisfying on its own, and the friendship at its heart feels stronger and more interesting than other buddy/bromance fantasy quest novels (such as Lankhmar or The Elephant and Macaw Banner).

Highly recommended

Rating: 5/5

Review: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Empire of Sand is a debut novel set in a fantasy empire of deserts and djinn-like spirits. Mehr, the daughter of the Governor of a city near the edge of the Empire, lives a life both pampered and persecuted. Her stepmother hates her and tries to keep her away from her little sister, while her father is a largely distant figure, indulging and protecting her through his station, but barely part of her life. She has no peers and only two loved ones in her life: her little sister, and a courtesan who teaches her ritual dancing.

Mehr is mixed race, her natural mother having belonged to a nomadic people who have a different religion. Having been brought up with the beliefs and rituals of those nomads, Mehr doesn't really fit in the Empire, which persecutes her mother's people. Then, things come to a head: a magical storm sweeps over the city,  oppressors arrive to round up  and slaughter the people of nomadic origin, and Mehr's loved ones are endangered.

Blood is shed. Mehr uses her inherited magic. And then the mystics arrive to take her away...

Empire of Sand has a beautiful cover. It was written by a smart, likeable author (who happens to be a librarian in one of my alma maters). It promises an intriguing setting, being inspired by Mughal India. Unfortunately, it's also one of those novels that's utterly joyless.

Mehr's lot in life is to be privileged and persecuted. Oppressed, violated, exploited, but a princess. The novel features a sort-of-romance that is especially rape-y and icky, but then, pretty much every "tortured bad boy" character and every Stockholm-Syndrome romance fills me with disgust, so this may be one thing that some lady-readers might feel differently about.

Add some villains who are hateful and sadistic but not really enjoying themselves, a good sprinkling of genocide, and a heavy dose of self-pity (and/or self-loathing) in all the vaguely good guys, and you end up with a novel that just drags itself on hands and knees through its desert scenery, bereft of life-giving water, humour and joy. It's a bit like grinding one's face against a cheesegrater: it flakes away little strands of happiness without ever getting boring enough to give up or exciting enough for me to really want to know what happens next.

It's one of those everything-is-bleak, people-are-shit novels, with an exotic setting. Not quite grimdark (because grimdark novels have less self-pitying and more cynically ruthless heroes), but not exactly the right book to read to escape from a crappy reality.

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Review: Semiosis by Sue Burke

Semiosis tells the story of a small colony of humans, settling on a new planet. They have left Earth and mankind behind: to them, Earth stood for ecological disasters, war, strife, and failure. Now, on a new planet, they hope that a fresh start will let them make a good job of it. They went looking for a way to live peacefully, productively, in equilibrium with nature, on a blank slate green planet.

The book follows the first six generations of the colony, each faced with different problems. The first generation discovers that local plantlife is not the passive background scenery that they know from Earth: plants on this planet are changeable, perhaps sentient, while animals seem... domesticated. By plants.

With a premise like that, I had high hopes for Semiosis. Alien plants versus humans? I hoped for a book about a totally different way of being, a totally alien world.

Unfortunately, Semiosis is really a book about an isolated colony of idealists / ideologues, trying to make a utopia but mostly just bickering and struggling.

They name their world / civilization "Pax", and they are convinced that they are better than the people they left behind on Earth. Pretty soon, we get an inkling that these people were not just hippie idealists, they were also immensely rich, and they chose to use a huge wealth to run away to their ideal, perfect, gated community on a virgin planet. They did not try to make anything better on Earth, did not use their wealth for a common good, but to create a new version of "common" without the hoi polloi. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out they aren't inherently  wonderfully nice people...

I'd hoped for new, original, alien ideas. Instead, the book was a fairly bleak "small community of people being frequently shitty" tale. Sure, there were some decent folk among the characters in the book, but there was also an overabundance of arseholes in the text, and lots of general shittyness. I get it, there's no hope, people are people and even a self-selecting group of 50 will soon include conflict and shittyness that festers and grows, but still. I had been sold a book about alien plants, and it turned out to be a book about petty politicking, weaponised rape, a serial killer, xenophobia, and the pros and cons of genocide.

The plants were more interesting when we didn't get one of them as a narrator / viewpoint character: once we get that perspective, any alien-ness disappears and we're just dealing with a human narrator wearing a plant costume, not a real plant...

Semiosis was readable and not boring. It just wasn't the book I'd been sold, and it wasn't nearly as original or interesting as I'd hoped. It was cynical and bleak in its view of human nature, and it had no real overarching plot.

Rating: 3/5

Monday, 18 March 2019

Review: 1491: The Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

1491 is a book trying to give an overview of current thinking about what America was like before Columbus arrived. In particular, what the people, cultures and human ways of living were like (though animals and nature get a bit of a mention, too). It's also a book that tends to have unimpressive covers, both in the US and the UK editions. All I can say is I'm glad I eventually looked past the naff cover...

Pre-Columbus America is often described as "prehistoric" - because historians rely on written records, and, for the most part, such records were not generated by Indians / people who lived in the Western hemisphere. There are notable exceptions: the Maya, the Aztecs, and, perhaps, the Inka, though their khipus have not yet been decoded. However, these cultures cover only small regions and brief glimpses into time. As such, the story of human life in the Americas before the conquest is largely unknown. And where something is unknown, some people will see "mystery", or worse, a blank canvas to project their own theories and biases onto... unsurprisingly, many did.

1491 tries to give a reasonably balanced account of what is known, what is theorised (by credible experts), and what is contentious and why. The book ignores the quacks, fraudsters and fantasists, but even the experts evidently have frequently been wrong in the past.


Academics in the humanities and social sciences seem to spend half their professional lives forming loose tribes and having spats with each other. Fortunately, the reader gets only the rough brush strokes picture of the essence of those spats and is spared the petty detail. The danger of a book that tries to cover a topic where much is still under contention is that it might end up on "the wrong side of history" - not the evil side, but simply the side that comes to incorrect conclusions. 1491 spends a lot of pages describing how knowledge and theories evolved. Often, there seemed to be a consensus in the past, only for it to be overturned by later theories. Outliers sometimes gathered momentum, became mainstream, replaced an old consensus with a new one. 1491 presents current knowledge, current consensus, current thinking. 20 years from now, more will be known. 100 years from now, perhaps many of the current consensus theories will have been replaced by others. As such, 1491 is a book that probably has an inbuilt "Best Before Date". Then again, what human theory does not?

The author is not without bias - he makes it clear which theories and perspectives he finds more convincing. However, he does not shy away from presenting the counter-arguments. The result is a text that is surprisingly readable and frequently surprising.

Surprising, because its central thesis - and the current thinking of many archaeologists, historians, researchers and scientists - paints a picture of human life in America that is very different from the picture the general public have been taught (in school or by pop culture). It's a non-fiction book, but even so, SPOILER ALERT, I'm going to talk about the big picture, something which the entire book slowly creates.

The central thesis is that both American continents were quite densely populated by a plethora of human cultures. Much of the landscape was managed and shaped by humans, both in North America and South America, including the Amazon region. Indian farming took many forms - sometimes, intense farming of a style not alien to Europeans. Terraced farms, irrigated fields, fertilised soils, domesticated crops. However, many Indian cultures used other methods - methods which were not recognised by explorers or settlers or academics for centuries. In particular, they used fire to control the landscape, they planted desirable trees (which provided food or other useful resources) and removed less useful ones, and they adjusted the environment to suit their needs. In North America, this created a landscape alternating between fruit and nut bearing trees, fields, and grasslands, like an enormous park landscape. Indians were not just hunter gatherers, but responsible for consciously creating an environment rich in resources they could gather, with ample habitat for animals they preferred to hunt.

In the Amazon region, they found ways to create fertile soils (terra preta) and managed the forest around their villages to create incredibly diverse, edible gardens. There were some hunter-gatherer societies, but for the most part, humans on the American continents lived in cultures that farmed and altered the landscape to suit their needs. The Americas were not a wilderness, but a human curated, human created landscape. (However, having learnt over many generations how to manage their territories, Indians by and large used more sustainable methods than the Europeans who replaced them. )


Then came Columbus. On his third voyage, his crew was sick, beset with a plethora of diseases. When they met Indians, they passed on infections. Even as Columbus returned to Europe, the diseases went like a wild fire through the human population of the continents. Because Indians had not domesticated many animals (only dogs, llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs and muscovy ducks), they had not lived in close enough proximity to catch many diseases from their beasts. Europeans, Asians and Africans, on the other hand, had. Measles, smallpox, flu, and others had made the jump from cows, horses, pigs and birds to humans. When those diseases reached the Americas, the population there had never encountered them before. Worse, for reasons that are not fully understood yet, Indians' immune systems were less able to cope with viruses and bacteria, so the infections did not just catch the immune systems by surprise, but they wreaked more havoc in every person they infected. Within a few years, Indians were decimated by disease. Over the course of the next hundred years, between 90-95% of Indians died because of European diseases. It was a holocaust of unprecedented, and never-yet-repeated scope and tragedy.

So, when the first settlers and conquistadors arrived, they unwittingly arrived in the middle of an apocalypse (the conquistadors), or in a postapocalyptic continent (North American settlers). They arrived in a place where 30% or 50% of people had just died, and where more were continuing to die. They arrived in societies that were collapsing, or that had collapsed. The conquistadors managed to destroy two empires (Aztec and Inka) because those empires had just lost huge chunks of their armies and their leaders, and because the ensuing chaos and power vacuum destroyed their ability to defend themselves effectively against ruthless invaders. Even with all that chaos, the conquistadors had help from Indians who wanted to see those empires fall, and who wanted to use the conquistadors as a tool to bring about this change. Without having Indian allies, the conquests would probably have failed. Without the epidemics that preceded them, they would definitely have failed.

After the conquest, a huge myth slowly evolved: the myth of the Indians who lived, passively, in a Garden Eden, picking fruit, hunting, gathering, and not creating anything worthwhile. Or the myth of the noble savage, attuned to nature, living as human animal in The Wild. The myth of America as pristeen, pure, natural continent, until Europeans came to be enterprising and make good use of it / ravage it (depending on your political leanings). It's a myth that arose because most Europeans only ever saw the postapocalyptic continent, where forests were growing, human habitat was slowly being reclaimed by plants and animals that had been managed and kept in check for millennia, but which were now free to take up the suddenly vacant space.

It's not mentioned in the book, but recently, climate scientists have theorised that the so-called Little Ice Age / Medieval global cooling event was partially the result of the CO2 captured by forests that grew on previously cultivated land after Indian populations had collapsed.

1491 is an excellent book, well worth reading. It gives a sense of what was lost in terms of human heritage (even if no book could ever capture the scope of human tragedy involved). It suggests glimpses of what human heritage gained from Indians - not just fruit and vegetables and a healthier, more varied, tastier diet, but a more democratic, anti-authoritarian spirit, and a more free way of life.It's a fascinating read, and well worth your time.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, 15 February 2019

Review: The Loosening Skin by Aliya Whiteley

The Loosening Skin is another very smart, high concept,  immersive novel by Aliya Whiteley. She is truly one of the most original talents writing speculative fiction at the moment.

The novel is set in a world where humans shed their skins every few years. And with the skin, they shed something crucial: (romantic & erotic) love. So, every seven or eight or ten years, humans get a complete reset of their emotional attachments - aside from "The Bond" with their parents, which can survive the shedding, and, generally, platonic friendship.

We follow the story of a woman who sheds more than just love: she reinvents herself after every shedding. She's been a soldier, a bodyguard, a private investigator, a charity shop clerk. We get her story in 2003. 2005. 2006. 2013. Then, to her surprise, it's her shop clerk persona who is hired to investigate perhaps the greatest mystery, a locked room heist that should have been impossible...

Aliya Whiteley is brilliant at writing authentic, human characters. They're not usually heroic, but they might be involved in larger than life situations, albeit in a slightly selfish, slightly flawed, not always in complete control kind of way. No matter how strange the premise of her worlds are, the people who live there are always recogniseably, convincingly human.  So, too, in The Loosening Skin.

I pretty much devoured the whole book on a long train journey. It was mesmerising and evocative, as Whiteley's writing always is. It did get unsettling at times, but the sense of the uncanny was less all-pervading than it was in The Beauty (her masterpiece so far). However, the switches between third person and first person, the non-linear structure, and the final third of the book, jolted me out of the story a little. In fact, I felt the second ending, or the extended epilogue, wasn't really necessary: the story had ended, and then we got a new perspective, a sequel of sorts, stretching the novella into a novel-length book, but not, in my opinion, into a better whole.

Even so, if you want to experience a world that is very different and yet very recogniseable, and horror of the most human sort, The Loosening Skin is first rate speculative fiction, by a world class author.

Rating: 4/5