A few days ago, the fabulous Ellen Kushner (@EllenKushner) tweeted that Rosemary Kirstein has made the whole series available as ebooks: definitely cause to celebrate! So here are my reviews, dug out of the word-mines, in the hope of prodding more people to read these estimable books. And I'm excited about finally getting hold of the fourth in the series, The Language of Power!!!
Do you want you very own ecopies?
The Steerswoman's Road by Rosemary Kirstein
New York: Del Rey, 2003; $15.95 tpb; 672 pages
reviewed by Jenny Blackford
The Steerswoman's Road is a 2003 volume which incorporates two novels: The Steerswoman, published in 1989; and The Outskirter's Secret, published in 1992. They are described in the promotional material as "beloved novels long out of print" (a description apt to make a reviewer's heart quail). I had never heard of them, but many US publications don't reach the Antipodes in any quantity.
The reason for the republication is that Del Rey will finally publish what they describe as the "sequel", The Lost Steersman, in fall 2003. Really, this will not be so much a sequel as the final book of a trilogy. Little is resolved by the end of The Outskirter's Secret—indeed, the main characters understand that their problems are greater than ever. Any reader who finishes this volume will want the third book as soon as possible, and the readers who have been waiting since 1992 could be justifiably anxious and impatient.
Gene Wolfe famously writes science fiction masquerading as fantasy, with technology so obscure to the participants that they (and probably many readers) think of it as magic. Similarly, these novels initially seem to be standard quasi-medieval fantasy quest. In the first chapter, a quiet, scholarly steerswoman, Rowan, is talking to an innkeeper, investigating the origin of beautiful magic jewels, when she meets Bel, a warrior woman of an Outskirter tribe. Rowan plans to go to the Archives, the Steerswomen's center, to tell the Prime of her plans to travel to the Outskirts, to continue her investigations into the jewels; Bel wants to understand the ways of these soft Inner Lands, and to see the sea; so they decide to travel together. On the road, Rowan and Bel are ambushed by a wizard's soldier (whom Bel kills), then an inn where they stay is attacked by small dragons (who kill many of the other guests). They take passage on a sailing ship, where they encounter a wizard's chest protected by deadly spells, and, back on land, they are helped by a duke whom Rowan knew when they were young. So far, it is all fantasy-style terminology and accouterments.
The economy of the Inner Lands is based on peasant farming, as befits a fantasy, and the non-wizard aristocracy is obliged to provide soldiers for the wizard's incomprehensible factional wars. The Outskirts are inhabited only by goat-herding tribes of fearsome warriors.
The evidence that this is something more complex than a quasi-medieval quest story builds up gradually. Steerswomen, it is shown, live for information. A steerswoman must answer anyone's question fully and truthfully, provided that the questioner in turn answers questions from steerswomen. They travel through the known world, asking questions and giving answers, and applying logic to everything they hear. They regularly send their journals back to the Archive to be collected and collated. It is not a hereditary caste, but a group self-selected from children who are like that—and we have all known, or have been, children like that.
Outskirters are nomad herdsmen and warriors who live a savage, "uncivilized" life—but they are heir to sophisticated knowledge. My favorite indication of this is an incident involving the chief of one of the Outskirter tribes at the edge of the habitable world, "the Face". The Face man, the most savage of savages, says that a particular poem is "set in the form of true poems." Rowan asks him about this, expecting a primitive reply. "He seemed to regard her as a fool. 'Alliterative, unrhymed. Caesura in each line.'" Anyone who has studied the scansion of Greek, Latin or (most appropriately) Old English poetry should enjoy this. So, the Outskirters are not merely poets: they are poets working self-consciously within their own genre.
But what of the feared wizards, and their magic? The young wizard who attaches himself to the Rowan and Bel baffles them. To the reader's eye, however, he is just a clever, nerdy kid who has accidentally discovered how to make something like gunpowder, and who is both excited and terrified about it. Other wizards, then, must use similar powers.
Indeed, the reader is given a strong hint, early on, that what is called "magic" in the books may not be all it seems. Rowan and Bel are discussing the question of whether magic is real, with Rowan stating that what is called "magic" seems mysterious rather than "magical" to her, and saying that it seems strange that magic often seems to avoid steerswomen and sailors. A sailor invites them to examine a wizard's magic chest in the ship's hold. The author has already carefully established that both sailors and steerswomen coat the soles of their shoes with a rubber-like substance. When the Outskirter Bel touches the "magic" chest, it "bites" her, but it doesn't hurt the sailor or the steerswoman. Later, a child standing in a rain-puddle dies when he touches the chest.
The reader gradually comes to understand, a little before Rowan does, that the books are set on what appears to be an alien planet, which is being terraformed largely by ecological means. The Guidestars, which most people accept as natural, are clearly geostationary satellites (Rowan becomes convinced that the "magic jewels" are fragments of the missing fourth Guidestar.) The Outskirters live on the frontiers of the habitable world; beyond that is dangerous land full of plants and animals poisonous and inimical to human beings, and to any plant or animal that we would recognize. By the end of the second book, Rowan is establishing that the Outskirters' goats eat the strange redgrass and the poisonous blackgrass, and that their copious waste products poison the plantlife, and allow ordinary green grass to grow, forming the basis of our familiar farming ecosystems.
Towards the end of the second novel, a familiar trope appears, but so sweetly that the experienced reader can only smile in recognition. All Outskirters have three names: their own name, their mother's name, and their "line" names. So, for example, Bel is Bel, Margasdotter, Chanly. Late in The Outskirter's Secret, Rowan discovers that each Outskirter memorizes his or her ancestors right back to the woman who was the beginning of his or her "line", and even better, that the Face people remember the names of all 112 of the "foremothers".
There is another way in which the novels are unlike standard quasi-medieval fantasy: women have admirable freedom, both in their personal and their private lives. They are as likely as men to become warriors, sailors, whatever. Their sexual freedom is unrestricted; Rowan and Bel take casual lovers and very serious partners without fear of disapproval, or moral qualms.
The question of morality, of right and wrong, permeates the books, but not as part of a fantasy struggle between Good and Evil. In a quiet, unassuming way, the two novels provide a subtle exploration of ethics. Rowan embodies civilized human decency. She is constantly testing her concept of morality against Bel's more savage, but still sophisticated, rules. Bel is quite ruthless, but ruthlessness is necessary for survival in the uncompromising environment of the Outskirts. Rowan and Bel are concerned about the question of what is morally right or wrong in complex situations, and how far, for example, activities such as lying and killing can be justified by results. Realistically, there are no clear conclusions. Large moral problems appear in small incidents throughout the books. For example, a sailor feels deep guilt about the death of the child killed by the wizard's chest in the wet night, because he had challenged the child to touch the chest earlier, when Rowan and Bel tried it. Meanwhile, it becomes clear through the novels that at least some of the wizards are behaving in ways that can only be described as evil.
The books are also a hymn to the human intellect. Quiet, scholarly Rowan, with the highly-trained mind of a steerswoman, and inquisitive warrior Bel, naturally sharp-witted, talk and think constantly, trying to work through the large and small problems that surround them. The author clearly loves logic and learning, and this love shines through the books.
Rowan may occasionally be a little too good to be true. She's only in her early twenties, but she has immense knowledge about the world, and her logical reasoning is superb; she solves, or comes close to solving, any number of immensely difficult problems, few of which anyone else would even see as problems. She's also immensely loyal, brave and tenacious. As well as this, her skills with the sword are honed through the novel until she can beat an Outskirter swordsman. Luckily, she is never described as beautiful.
The prose of the novels is simple, clear and skillful. More unusually, though, the poetry embedded in the work is actually good. One is conditioned to expect workmanlike poetry at best, whether in fantasy, sf or mainstream novels, but Kirstein's poems are lovely.
I look forward to the appearance of The Lost Steersman.
The Lost Steersman by Rosemary Kirstein
New York: Del Rey, 2003; $14.95 tpb; 419 pages
reviewed by Jenny Blackford
In the August 2003 issue of NYRSF, I gave an enthusiastic review to Rosemary Kirstein's The Steerswoman's Road, a 2003 volume comprising The Steerswoman, first published in 1989, and The Outskirter's Secret, first published in 1992. At the end of the volume, the brilliant thinker Rowan from the soft Inner Lands and her poet-warrior friend Bel from the dangerous Outskirts are both left in great danger, working to avert the disastrous clash between their people which the evil "wizard" Slado is apparently attempting to engineer. The books are crypto-sf, masquerading (as much of Gene Wolfe's work does) as fantasy. Most of the civilization of Rowan and Bel's world is at a medieval level, though the status of women is much higher. Wizards really do exist, and are very powerful—Slado's "magic powers" include control of a geostationary satellite—but the reader understands that their magic is technology, and cheers Rowan on as she works out logical explanations for various magical phenomena.
The overall structure of the novels, as well as current publishing tendencies, led me to expect that the sequel, The Lost Steersman, would be the long-awaited final book of the hypothetical Steerswoman trilogy. Conversely, the blurb describes The Lost Steersman as "the eagerly anticipated new novel by Rosemary Kirstein, critically acclaimed author of The Steerswoman and The Outskirter's Secret", rather than as the sequel to the previous two books, though it does go on to summarize their action.
In fact, The Lost Steersman simply continues the story of The Steerswoman and The Outskirter's Secret, without coming much closer to a conclusion. This was a problem for me on my first reading: I expected a major confrontation between Rowan and Slado at any point, and I was frustrated at the apparently slow progress Rowan was making in her quest to find him. As a result, I found it difficult to concentrate on the seemingly less important actual events of the novel. My second reading was much more satisfactory: Rowan's hopeless attempts to fit into small-town life, and her painstaking exploration of the nature of the "demons" which attack the town, became fascinating in themselves.
At the beginning of the novel, Rowan is working through archived Steerswoman journals in the small seaside town of Alemeth, looking for any clues about Slado's nature, location or powers. In the previous books, Rowan has established (by superb logical deduction backed up by brave exploration) that the wizard Slado is using his "magic" to cause the savage warrior Outskirters to attack the people of the Inner Lands; he has stopped the cycle of "Routine Bioform Clearance" which used regularly to open up new "Outskirts" for the Outskirters. (In Routine Bioform Clearance, a geostationary satellite burns an area past the Outskirts, killing the poisonous alien life there, and making it possible for the Outskirters, unwittingly, to terraform the cleared area by grazing their genetically engineered goats.)
While she is searching the journals in Alemeth, Rowan unexpectedly finds an old friend, Jason—the eponymous lost steersman. Jason went through training with Rowan, but later renounced his status and refused an explanation to a steerswoman. Steerswomen live by questions and answers; his refusal to answer a question has put him "under ban", and no steerswoman may answer any of his questions.
It is quite clear to the reader that Jason has become strange to the point of sinister, but the tragically nice Rowan is convinced that she is to blame for his bizarre attitude to her, and that his frequent unexplained absences are innocent. The locals, unfortunately, know and trust Jason, and when he starts to spread rumors about Rowan, things go badly for her.
Meanwhile, fearful "demons" have started attacking the little town of Alemeth, killing people by spraying them with corrosive fluid from sacs between each of their four arms. Rowan not only rallies the townspeople to defend themselves, but also dissects several of the beasts, deducing that they are examples of the quadrilaterally symmetrical life-forms typical of the Outskirts (i.e., as the reader understands, native to the planet). When more waves of demons attack the town, and abduct Jason, Rowan sets off in search of him, convinced that the demons were sent by Slado.
The story then follows Rowan's dangerous and difficult search for Jason, and her meticulous observation of the strange, wonderful society of the demons. She is assisted in her search by another steerswoman, her exuberant one-legged friend Zenna, plus the most intelligent of the townspeople, twentysomething Steffie (male, despite the name), who discovers along the way that he wants to become a steersman. When Rowan finally finds Jason, his dreadful story is oddly like that of Fletcher, the complicated man Rowan loved in The Outskirter's Secret.
The people of the small seaside town of Alemeth are less exotic than the nomadic warrior Outskirters of the previous two volumes, and Rowan is dismayed to find them less likable, as well as less interesting. In fact, the author seems to have set herself the challenge of making small town life, and small town characters, interesting; it may be that, like Rowan, she prefers the exotic. Kirstein has succeeded pretty well, but—while Zenna and Steffie are good, complex characters—I missed the barbarian warrior woman Bel, who only makes a cameo appearance. Bel was one of the highlights of the first two books, and her interaction with Rowan was both touching and funny. Her talents—poetry and cooking, among others—were always surprising.
Despite Bel's scarcity in it, The Lost Steersman is excellent. It has something of the feel of a Young Adult novel, without any of the possible downsides to that estimable genre. Perhaps this is because the author so clearly approves of knowledge, of questions and answers, and of logical deduction; or perhaps it is because Rowan comes across as so very nice, while she considers herself quite the opposite. There are moral lessons in the book, but it is none the worse for that.
It would be possible to read and enjoy The Lost Steersman without having read the other books first—Kirstein gives a good summary in the Prologue, a letter written by Rowan to the Steerswomen's Prime—but it would be a less rich experience. The Lost Steersman is a lovely book, which I recommend heartily; but, if you can, pick up a copy of The Steerswoman's Road and read it first.