Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy. I must be cursed, because I choose only unfinished series to start. Maybe it’s karma for all of the angry thoughts I’ve harbored towards George R.R. Martin, or my devious plan to find out where he lives, become his neighbor, “befriend” his wife so I can hover anxiously in their kitchen and nag him about getting back to writing. Yes. Surely I’m being punished for all of that.
On the plus side, I’ve read some pretty good stuff lately, and this series was one of them. First published in 1989, The Steerswoman gained a small but devoted following. These poor people had to wait ELEVEN YEARS between books two and three, so I should probably quit whining. Published as ebooks in 2013, they seem to be gaining in popularity, as well they should.
Rowan is a steerswoman, a guild of navigators and seekers of knowledge:
If you ask, she must answer. A steerswoman’s knowledge is shared with any who request it; no steerswoman may refuse a question, and no steerswoman may answer with anything but the truth.
And if she asks, you must answer. It is the other side of tradition’s contract — and if you refuse the question, or lie, no steerswoman will ever again answer even your most casual question.
And so, the steerswomen — always seeking, always investigating — have gathered more and more knowledge about the world they traveled, and they share that knowledge freely.
I saw that blurb and realized I had to read this book.
In her travels, Rowan discovers what appears to be a harmless, yet curious item, and her questions about it quickly lead to danger, not just for her, but for her whole order. She finds an interesting way to continue her quest in secret- hard to do when you are obligated to tell the truth- and finds a few friends to help her. Bel is a warrior from The Outskirts, a barren, savage land that surrounds the Inner Lands which is home to a kind of medieval civilization. Willam is a teenage boy who has discovered “magic,” and is hoping to become a wizard’s apprentice.
Unlike the Steerswomen, wizards do not share their knowledge, and are the source of much trouble in the Inner Lands. Their magic is easily recognized by us, but inexplicable to Rowan and her contemporaries.
These books are carefully written and well-thought-out. Rowan’s lines of inquiry are fun to observe. There’s no real scientific method; many problems are posed as either/or scenarios, with Rowan carefully and logically working her way to sometimes startling conclusions.
In the first book, the world itself is far less interesting than the characters. Rowan and Bel are particularly well-drawn and sympathetic in completely unique ways.
The second book, The Outskirter’s Secret was probably my favorite of the series. Rowan’s investigations lead her into the Outskirts, where she is forced to rely on Bel and her people for information as well as survival. This arid, inhospitable world is truly fascinating and the nomads that inhabit it even more so. In spite of the hardships, Rowan finds both personal and professional fulfillment here, at least for a while. In the end, she’s gained some valuable information, in addition to becoming sadder and wiser.
The third book finds Rowan and Bel parting ways temporarily, although Rowan finds a satisfying new sidekick in the form of Steffie, a young man who at first seems slow, but turns out to have a brain well-suited to Steerswoman (and the occasional man) type of inquiry. Rowan is trying to find out what has happened to a Steersman who left the order and was kidnapped by mysterious creatures the humans refer to only as Demons.
This takes her into the middle of a truly alien culture and what she learns there doesn’t get her much farther along on her quest, although it’s extremely interesting. The build-up to the climax of this book was alternately hair-raising and boring, but led to a really strange and thought-provoking twist.
In many ways, the last book was the least interesting. Rowan’s progress towards the truth she seeks is frustratingly slow, although she is reunited with Bel and eventually, another old friend. The end was a bit more predictable, because it was the third time Kirstein used a particular plot device. Still, really fascinating reading. We get more insight into the world of the wizards, and Rowan is always more fun when Bel is around.
The quest remains unfinished, and I don’t know if there will be a fifth book, since Kirstein is reportedly fighting cancer. I hope for her sake and ours, that she gets to write some more. I also hope her intriguing and unique voice will get the attention it deserves.