The Steerswoman

by Rosemary Kirstein

Cover image

Series: Steerswomen #1
Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 1989, 2003
Printing: 2003
ISBN: 0-345-46105-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 264

Buy at Powell's Books

I read this novel as part of The Steerswoman's Road omnibus, which is the edition reflected in the metadata (except for the page count, which is just this novel).

Rowan is a steerswoman, a member of an order of traveling scholars in a world of generally medieval customs. This is a world of small villages and town blacksmiths, of swords, sailing ships, and lots of walking. Steerswomen (the order does include some men, but only rarely; the gender balance is left delightfully unexplained and unremarked) mostly travel routes through the Inner Lands until they decide to retire and do research and study. Sometimes, though, they get on the trail of something unexplained, and are driven to explain it. That's the case for Rowan at the start of this book: she's run across several peculiar flat jewels. No one seems to know what they are, their pattern of distribution is odd, and they're discovered in some decidedly strange places, such as embedded deep in a tree. It's a puzzle, and Rowan is determined to understand it.

The Steerswoman opens with Rowan investigating a jewel owned by an innkeeper, and a chance meeting in his inn with an Outskirter who wears a whole belt of the same jewels. The Outskirters are nomadic tribes from the far west known for their prickly attitude, their ability in warfare, and their occasional raids. Those who live in the Inner Lands consider them barbarians. But Bel is curious, thoughtful, and happy to tell Rowan of the origin of her belt: her father found a huge number of the jewels embedded in the side of a cliff, far into the Outskirts. Rowan is immediately tempted to go there, but she has to report to the Archives first. Much to her surprise, Bel asks to accompany her. And then wizards start trying to kill them.

The steerswomen are Kirstein's best bit of world-building and the anchor around which the rest of the story is told. Steerswomen have to answer all questions they're asked, truthfully. In return, they can ask a question of anyone and have to be answered truthfully. If anyone refuses to answer, or tells a deliberate lie, they're placed under the steerswomen's ban, and no steerswoman will answer their questions. This is woven deep into the culture of the Inner Lands... except for the wizards, who refuse to explain what they're doing or how to anyone, are under the ban, and don't care. They protect cities from dragons, build magical lighting, and occasionally start wars with other wizards in which numerous people die. They're effectively the rulers of this world insofar as it has rulers, and they're apparently quite interested in Rowan's search for these unexplained jewels.

Rowan is a wonderful character. At the start of the book, she's the only steerswoman that the reader knows, so much of her early behavior is also world-building, showing us steerswomen. But as the story develops, we meet other steerswomen and Rowan develops into her own character: innocent in a way, but determined, ethical, and with a very deep store of self-knowledge and inner contemplation. I found the middle part of the book somewhat frustrating for the same reasons Rowan did. The ending lets her shine, in her own way, and it's deeply satisfying.

The Steerswoman does pick up a third character along the way, a young boy named Will who hopes to become a wizard's apprentice, and to whom I never warmed. Part of the problem was structural: he's very suspicious of characters that the reader knows are entirely honorable. This is a difficult tone to pull off without irritating me, and Kirstein doesn't quite manage. She also shifts the story to the Will's perspective from time to time, and I never found his viewpoint very interesting. I warmed to him a bit by the climax, but I still don't think he added much to the story.

Bel, though... Bel competes with Rowan as best character of this book. The other characters all have roles to play: Rowan is the steerswoman, integral to the world-building, and Will exemplifies another corner of the analytical process so central to this book and represents the appeal of the wizards. But Bel is just herself: irreverent, curious, loyal, dangerous, decisive, and adventurous. Rowan is the heart of the book and the primary protagonist, but I think Bel is its soul.

I haven't said too much about the themes of this book, intentionally. Kirstein is doing something very interesting and subtle with the reader's expectations of a medieval world with wizards, and I think it's better experienced without spoilers. But it's also a character-driven story, a story of unlikely friendship between two very different women, and a story about the value of being true to yourself even when it's exceptionally dangerous. Rowan delighted me immediately, Bel grew on me over the course of the story, and the rough patches in the middle of the book faded in comparison to an excellent ending.

Unfortunately, this is only part of a story. There is a climax, and we do know what the jewels are by the end of the book. But the journey has raised many more questions, most of which are not solved. The world has become far more complicated. Rowan has a lot left to learn and investigate. I recommend the omnibus, or getting the ebooks from Amazon where you can quickly get more, because you'll probably want to immediately start the second book.

Followed by The Outskirter's Secret.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-12-25

Last modified and spun 2015-12-27