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