The Outskirter's Secret

by Rosemary Kirstein

Cover image

Series: Steerswomen #2
Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 1992, 2001
Printing: 2001
ISBN: 0-345-46105-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 389

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This is a direct sequel to The Steerswoman, and I don't recommend starting here. 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).

There are a few plot constructs that occur depressingly often in SFF and almost always annoy me. One is books where nearly all of the book is just a journey from one place to another, without much interesting landscape along the way. Subtract additional points if the land is hostile and there are constant worries about food. Another is illness, or being unable to trust one's senses, or, worse, both.

Somehow, this book manages to do both of those things and was still thoroughly enjoyable. This is exceptionally rare.

After the conclusions reached in the previous book, Rowan and Bel are even more determined to reach the origin of the jewels on Bel's belt and gather more information. This means travel into the Outskirts, where Rowan has never been (and where people from the Inner Land almost never go). It also means close contact with Bel's people, who have an entirely different set of social rituals and who are notoriously prickly.

Nearly all of The Outskirter's Secret is travel through the Outskirts while navigating Outskirter society, politics, and customs. It's anthropological fiction of a sort, particularly given the inquisitive and analytical mindset that Rowan brings to anything new. Anthropological SFF is another one of those things that normally leaves me cold, but which totally worked for me in this book. I rarely remember being this engaged in, or caring this much about, the customs and traditions of an invented and relatively primitive culture.

Partly this is because Rowan's mindset continues to be fascinating and contagious. I kind of want to compare this series to Neal Stephenson's Anathem, but where Stephenson's novel was about the practice of organized science, the Steerswomen series is about the individual scholar and scientist. This could go badly in the hands of a lesser author, but Kirstein brilliantly balances analysis and theories with Rowan's child-like wonder in learning, peculiar and determined ethics, and emotional growth. She isn't a disinterested observer or an engineer with a wrench. She lets the world change her, works hard at finding her place and her own strength, and engages with it emotionally as much as she does intellectually. She's a wonderfully compelling character.

Another significant factor to this book's success is the slow and deliberate way Kirstein mixes world-building revelations with the day-to-day struggles of the characters. There's much more to that than just the target of Rowan's investigations, and far more complexity and significance to the Outskirters than showed in first appearances. The world is also set up in a way that lets the readers guess various details before the characters, with their more limited knowledge, can work out: another tricky technique that Kirstein gets almost perfect. I never wanted to shake the characters for being dumb; usually, both Rowan and Bel leap to correct conclusions just shortly after the reader, and long before the reader is tired of following their thought processes. There was only one bit of world-building that took Rowan most of the book to figure out despite being obvious to me early in this novel, and I think that one was fair. She didn't have anywhere near enough information to work it out.

Bel continues to be wonderful in numerous ways. But even better, Kirstein introduces us to Bel's people and highlights both similarities and differences. It's an excellent job of building a complex culture that feels human: varied, tradition-laden, practical, but also well-adapted to their environment and situation, and far more sophisticated than they might appear. I'm normally a hard sell for this sort of thing, but Kirstein got me thoroughly invested. One scene late in this novel where a tribe welcomes a newcomer is masterful and probably my favorite single moment of the series so far.

Once again, unfortunately, the conclusion is a bit less than satisfying. The characters come away knowing more, planning more, but still with numerous unanswered questions. This is not a series that's in a hurry to get to major plot payoffs. Instead, it's a series that takes a close look at the cultures, relationships, emotions, and lives that it touches, and describes them in deft and engaging ways.

The Outskirter's Secret is even better than The Steerswoman. Recommended. I bought the third and fourth books while only a little ways into this one and am eager to read them.

Followed by The Lost Steersman.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-12-26

Last modified and spun 2016-03-01