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The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein
james_nicoll


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In what fellow FASS member Mark Jackson-Brown charmingly refers to as "the Before Times [1]", book distribution in Ontario was pretty patchy and while I remember that word of mouth on rec.arts.sf-lovers was very positive about The Steerswoman, I didn't manage to find a copy of it for my own until 1993, four years after it was published. I can tell this because when I look at the back of my copy it has a sticker from A Second Look Books dated 1993. Which I guess means the author didn't make any money off me so let's move quickly on to the next paragraph.

These books are what SF should aspire to be; it is a shame they are not more widely known.

There will be some spoilers.

Both the original Hescox cover (which I will get back to) and the current cover involve maps and that's significant. Rowan, the protagonist, is a Steerwoman; the steerswomen seem to have begun as navigators but they've expanded past that into gathering and cataloging all of the knowledge they can, and beyond that to trying to arrive at coherent explanations for what they see around them. They are this world's scientists, sharing information freely on the condition that people share information with them freely; anyone who lies to a Steerswoman or refuses to answer a question finds themselves under the Ban, unable to query any Steerswoman.

The text itself begins like a thousand fantasy stories (and even more fantasy role playing campaigns), with the two lead characters meeting in a tavern somewhere on the road to adventure. On the one hand, we have the lead, Rowan the Steerswoman, on the trail of information and on the other Bel the Outskirter, a woman from a culture of herders and raiders on the edge of the inhabited territories. The two soon agree to become companions, Rowan's civilized skills complimented by Bel's somewhat less civilized skills.

Bel also gives Rowan someone to explain things to, which is very useful.

Rowan the Steerswoman has become intrigued by odd gems whose origin is obscure; they can be found across the known lands in a pattern that seems to suggest they were scattered from a single event; her people have enough grasp of physics for her to work out what sort of event this would have had to be and the answer is seemingly absurd, involving giants and ridiculous velocities.

The plot takes a turn when Rowan is ambushed on the road out of town. It is very likely that if she had not been in Bel's company she'd be dead. As it is she's now aware that someone wants her dead and it's not that hard to work out that the person responsible is almost certain a wizard, masters of magic who stand on contrast to the Steerswomen: where the Steerswoman share information freely, the wizards hoard theirs, and where the Steerswomen get by on persuasion, the wizards enjoy lofty positions of power because they are in the habit of killing people who try to say no to them (and often, those who say yes because wizards don't really care about collateral damage).

As Rowan points out, she is in no way an unusual Steerswoman so it is not hard to deduce that the issue must be not who she is but what she is doing and the only thing she's doing is to research the gems. For some reason, this is a question the wizards or at least one persuasive wizard does not want answered and the fact that he or she is willing to kill a Steerwoman over it means the long period of tolerated indifference between wizards and Steerwomen may be ending, and the wizards have all the magical weapons.

The cover of my first edition mass market paperback is by Richard Hescox




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and at first glance it looks very much like a standard fantasy novel cover of the era; two people in faux-mediaeval clothes, conversing over a map in a room that could be a wizard's or an alchemist's laboratory, if not for the anachronistically advanced looking orrery to the right and the flat screen visible to the left. This mix of signals foreshadows the contents of the book (as does the fact Del Rey stuck a little "SF" in the colophon rather than fantasy) and the way in which it delivers some diamond hard science fiction wrapped in fantasy tropes.

I expect the question of how to market this book was a vexing one, because part of the fun is working out what's going on but on the other hand someone expecting a pure quill fantasy might react badly if they discover they've picked up an SF novel by mistake.

Kirstein continues this game of presenting what is slowly revealed to be a science fiction story in fantasy garb through the book: the setting is comparatively low tech, the social organization more or less feudal in the civilized areas, and the wizards are repeatedly said to use magic. Bel is a barbarian of a type familiar from dozens of stories and goblins and dragons abound. As the book continues, it becomes increasingly clear that as much as the setting may look like a secondary world fantasy, it's actually a mundane world (whose true nature is better explained in later books), a world much of whose surface is uncharted and uninhabited because it appears to be uninhabitable:

“The southern shore of the Inland Sea is inhabited, too, but not to any great distance. The vegetation gets odd farther south, and it’s hard to introduce anything useful. It might be a worse version of what you have in the Outskirts.”


In fact, a discerning reader will likely conclude that that this world is either the Earth after some Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind-level ecological calamity or (more likely) an alien planet comparatively recently settled, whose technologically backward condition may be due to the machinations of the wizards. What the reader cannot tell is if the wizards are simply power-mad autocrats or if they have some good reason for acting as they do. In fact, even the wizards seem unclear on this point because their habit of sequestering information means even they are vulnerable to manipulation from within their ranks.

One of the impressive things about this book and the series in general is the way Kirstein resists having Rowan deduce too much too quickly; she's smart, she's good at working out how things behave but there are many moments where the reader will work out what is going on and Rowan will not, because Rowan's context denies her information about phenomena like electricity or gunpowder.

As I've mentioned, this book and the rest of the series were very favourably reviewed online in the Before Time. Even now, of the 21 reviews on Amazon 17 are five star and three are four star. Jo Walton reviewed the whole series on tor.com in 2008; the comments were almost uniformly positive save for dissatisfaction with the lack of availability at the time and the slow pace of publication. Despite that, I believe if you were to grab a passing SF reader and question them according to the customs of their people [2], they would admit to having never heard of The Steerswoman books. It's irritating that fame depends so much on dumb luck; there are much worse novels that have enjoyed greater, more sustained fame.


The Steerswoman can be found at the other end of this link.

The author's site is here.



1: In a glorious celebration of my venerable age, some members of the rest of the cast and crew have spoken openly about holding up "I wasn't born yet" signs during my many informative anecdotes.

2: Speaking of "according to the customs of their people", I was not thrilled to discover there's a scene in which Bel tortures a prisoner for information. In her defense, she's a murderous thug who leaves a trail of bodies behind her. Rowan doesn't help, exactly, but she also does not put up a spirited case against torturing the guy.

Also posted at Dreamwidth, where there are comment count unavailable comment(s); comment here or there.

I loved these books. Someone rec'd them to be last year and I was able to find them quite readily from Powell's.

They are wonderful.

Which I guess means the author didn't make any money off me so let's move quickly on to the next paragraph.

Perhaps not with the sale of that one copy, but I would think that a "here's why you should read this", maybe even with a "I didn't like this part" post will at least bring it to more people's attention, and maybe sell a few more copies. (FWIW, I read it, but don't remember much about it other than the fact that I finished it. It was a library book, but I wasn't moved enough to actually buy a copy for my very own. I may go back and read it again, as that was when I was swamped with two littles.)

Edited at 2014-04-22 04:15 pm (UTC)

I bought the books when they first came out and love them to bits.

Your link to the author's website and to a place of purchase are the wrong way around.

She did make some money off you, because I just bought the book based on your recommendation. (I'm pretty sure I've already read it, in the early 1990s, but it will all be new to me by now again.)

She certainly made money off me because I bought all 4 (so that I could re-read the first 3 before reading the 4th)

I'm halfway through the first one, having bought it when you linked to it last week or so. I'm enjoying it. I can see that to a degree it might have hit a little more on target when it first came out, when apparently-standard fantasy was a little different and not quite so tired as now. But it's fun to watch it unfold so far.

What gets to me is not just that the relatively good guys use torture for information, or that they don't object to it, but that torture keeps getting shown as a way of getting good information and has no inconvenient side effects.

It doesn't work in this book.

Because of wizard counter measures, not because torture is unreliable.

Right, but at least it doesn't work.

Excuse me-- I misspoke. I meant to complain about how torture for information is presented in general. I didn't remember the specific scene from the book.

Thank you, James! I saw some mention of the books (possibly the Kindle Deal of the Day) but knew nothing about them. I'll grab the first one posthaste.

Feel free to link widely to these reviews.

I think I first saw this recommended at Requires Only That You Hate a few years ago. I'd picked up the omnibus of the first couple books but it had fallen down the TBR pile. Time to move it back up to the top!

Requires liked something?

She likes these a lot, she likes Laurie J. Marks very much . . . there were others, but her site has been redesigned so it's no longer easily navigable and I can't remember titles offhand.

"I wasn't born yet"

or reborn... grin..

I love this series. I found out about it possibly from you, definitely from rec.arts.sf.written. Well worth reading.

I guess I did too. I definitely remember mentions of them back in the day on RASFW but can't remember whether it was James or someone else. It took me a while to get to them... but I'm very glad I did. They immediately became one of my favorite series ever. I hope Ms. Kirstein will be in good health come this August and will be able to attend Loncon and hopefully I'll get to meet her.
I've posted recommendations on a couple of SF boards/groups I frequent when the first one was made available as an ebook. Got a few people hooked.

I'm trying to remember who called this "the purest kind of science fiction: fiction ABOUT science." The bit in the beginning where Rowan ALMOST works out orbital mechanics, but backs off because it's so counterintuitive -- but, later, presented with more and more data points, revises her hypotheses and uses careful scientific method to work everything out...

The different ways different characters work out problems: Rowan's active step-by-step imagination; Will's experimentation; the character in Almeth who seems slow, but that's just because he gathers information all the time, then just responds with his conclusions...

I'm quite happy that for some reason I thought it was a good idea to get all these from Del Rey when they had them in print in trade paperback. I have a vague memory that I was led there by association with Laurie Marks who I got to from one of those "ten best fantasy books this year" lists in Years Best Fantasy and Horror... but I can't be sure.

I still love this series. The wait between books 3 and 4 was my GRRM preview...

These books not at Scribd. Sigh. I am v v poor and buying more than one ebook a month is beyond me, so I'm trying out the one free month at Scribd. Whenever I search for an author or a book there, I usually find nothing. Nor are the books available through the local library ebook program, which is similarly sparse.

I could get the deadtree books at the library, I suppose, though I much prefer ebooks to deadtree books these days.I used to be a constant library visitor and now months pass between visits.

I didn't realize, until I visited Ms. Kirstein's website, that she was dealing with cancer. I wish her the best.

The first one is $3. The others are $6 each.
As for Scribd, that's a site with pirated content.

Scribd used to have a fair bit of pirated content, and probably still does, in their documents section. They've recently opened a completely legit ebook library, on the Netflix and Oyster model. It runs on Android smartphones and tablets. Oyster, which looks to be more upscale, only runs on iOS.

Scribd must have made a deal with the Hillerman estate, because all of Hillerman's Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee books are there. It will probably be worth subscribing just for those, for a couple of months.

Someone described the current situation as the permissions culture. In order to view, listen to, or read in e, you have to deal with services that in turn have to deal with content providers who are demanding higher and higher fees for permissions.

Oh, and a four-book series that costs $21 is as out of my reach as the moon. I am dirt poor. Churchmouse poor. Three college degrees, but fat, old, and crippled; I'm apparently unemployable. I supplement a tiny social security stipend with renting out my spare bedroom and freelancing.

Would a Kindle gift for the first book be okay? I think I can spare $3. :) You should be able to read it on a free app, as long as you have an email address tied to an Amazon account.

You are so KIND. However, the kindness is no longer necessary.

In the interval between my posting and your reply, the first three Steerswoman books showed up on Scribd, to which I have subscribed. For $9 a month, I have access to many ebooks. Not as many as I would like, but the service is just getting started. It's cheaper than buying everything I read in e, and less scary than trying to find pirated ebooks that won't infect my systems with malware. Also, I want to be legit and support authors if I can.

I think I will pay for Scribd by dropping Netflix. I find that I prefer reading to watching TV or movies.

Wonderful! I would have let you see if you liked the first book and then offered the second, and so on. I'm glad for your sake that it became available to you, and glad for Rosemary that her books are getting wider distribution. I like supporting authors too, including introducing other people to my favorites.

Hope you enjoy the Steerswoman books! (And if you do and the 4th isn't available to you, let me know.)

I galloped through the first three books, one after the other. Liked the second the best, thought the third dragged. I will probably buy the fourth book, if and when I have the money. This month has been a horror, but finances should improve next month. An ebook formatting job promised, by an old friend.

Again, your kindness is much appreciated.

Me too! The second is my favorite, the third dragged, and the fourth is my second favorite.

One of the impressive things about this book and the series in general is the way Kirstein resists having Rowan deduce too much too quickly; she's smart, she's good at working out how things behave but there are many moments where the reader will work out what is going on and Rowan will not, because Rowan's context denies her information about phenomena like electricity or gunpowder.

The basilisks are a particular example of this.

I enjoy this series very much, and have ever since the first book came out. I just wish she'd be able to finish it more quickly, especially now that she's come down with breast cancer.

Not having a credit card I can't buy these from Amazon; any other place that sells them and allows paypal?

So far they're only available in Kindle editions. Kirstein is working on making them available in other formats, in between bouts of chemotherapy.

Is <a href="https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/432961”>Smashwords</a> any help? (Other formats aside from kindle, too.)