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.

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