The Lost Steersman

by Rosemary Kirstein

Cover image

Series: Steerswomen #3
Publisher: Rosemary Kirstein
Copyright: 2003, 2014
Printing: 2014
ISBN: 0-9913546-2-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 432

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This is the third book in the Steerswomen series and a direct follow-up to the events of The Outskirter's Secret. It does, marvel of marvels, feature an in-character summary of the events of the series to date! I do love when authors do this; it helps immensely if you come back to a series after a bit of a break between books. But this whole series is so good, and the emotional tone and development of Rowan as a character is so strong, that I recommend against starting here.

After the events of the last book, Rowan has returned to the Inner Lands. She's sent her report back to the Archives, but stopped at the Annex in Alemeth. This is an auxiliary library that should have copies of the journals and other research that Rowan wants to search, and stopping there saves substantial travel time. However, she finds the steerswoman who was custodian of the Annex is deceased and the Annex is, from Rowan's perspective, a mess. Nothing is organized, the books aren't properly cared-for, and Mira's interactions with the townsfolk were far different than Rowan's natural attitude.

The start of this book was a surprising shift. After the large-scale revelations at the end of The Outskirter's Secret, and the sense of escalating danger, Rowan's return to small-town life in the Inner Lands comes as a shock. That's true for both the reader and for Rowan, and the parallels make it a remarkably effective bit of writing.

At the beginning of the story, the reader is already familiar with Rowan (at least if you've read the previous books) and how she thinks of being a steerswoman. Rowan is very much on edge and in a hurry given what's going on in the broader world. But the town is used to Mira: a gregarious socializer who cared far more about town gossip and her role as coordinator of it than she cared about most of her steerswoman duties. (At least as seen from Rowan's perspective. By the end of the book, we have a few hints that something else might be going on, but the damage to the books at least feels unforgivable.) Rowan is resented and even disliked at first, particularly by Steffie and Gwen who did most of the chores at the Annex and were closest to Mira.

One of the reasons why I love this series so much is that Kirstein has a gift for characterization. Rowan (and Bel, who largely doesn't appear in this book) are brilliant characters, but it's not just them. At the start of this book, the reader tends to share Rowan's opinion of the town: a sort of half-bemused, half-exasperated indifference. Even as the characters start to grow on one, it seems like a backwater and a diversion from the larger story. But it becomes clear that Rowan is very on-edge from her experience in the Outskirts, that she's underestimated the relevance of Mira to at least the town's happiness, and she's greatly underestimated the ability of the townsfolk to help her. Steffie, in particular, is a wonderful character; by the end of the book, he had become one of my favorite people in the series so far. He doesn't think he's particularly smart, and his life before Rowan is very simple, but there are depths to him that no one, including him, expected.

There is a plot here, apart from small town politics and Rowan's slow relaxation. (Although those were so compelling that I'm not sure I would have minded if that were the entire book.) The lost steersman of the title is an old student friend of Rowan that she unexpectedly meets in town, a former steersman who quit the order and refused to explain why. Rowan, of course, cannot resist trying to fix this situation. The second plot driver is a dangerous invasion of Outskirts monsters into the town. Those who have read the previous books will have some immediate guesses as to why this might be, and Rowan does as well. But there's more going on than it might first appear.

This book is not entirely a diversion. It returns to the main plot of the series by the end of the book, and we learn much more about Rowan's world. But, somewhat surprisingly, that was my least favorite part of the book. It has some nice bits of exploration and puzzle-solving, and Rowan is always a delight to spend time with. But the last section of the book is similar to many other genre books I've read before — well-written, to be sure, but not as unique. It also features a rather long section following a character who is severely physically ill, which is something I always find very hard to read (a personal quirk). But there's a lot of meat here for the broader plot, and I have no idea what will happen in the next book.

The part of The Lost Steersman that I'm going to remember, though, are the town bits, up through the arrival of Zenna (another delightful character who adds even more variety to Kirstein's presentation of steerswomen). Kirstein is remarkably good at mixing small-town characters with the scientific investigation of the steerswomen and letting them bounce off of each other to reveal more about the character of both. If it weren't for the end of the book, which bothered me for partly idiosyncratic reasons, I think this would have been my favorite book of the series.

Followed by The Language of Power, and be warned that this book ends on something close to a cliffhanger.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-02-29

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