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The Lost Steersman by Rosemary Kirstein
james_nicoll
The Lost Steersman: The Steerswoman series, Book Three
Rosemary Kirstein




This picks up a thread mentioned in passing in the first book; Janus, one of the few male Steersman, has resigned from the order and because he will not say why, has been placed under the Ban. Until he explains himself, no Steerswoman will answer his questions.

(spoilers)


This would seem to be fairly academic because Janus has also vanished. In a backward world like the Inner Lands, word travels at the speed of feet (or if you are rich, horse) and it's easy enough for someone to vanish if they want to.

Rowan's quest to work out what the wizard Slado is up to takes her to the Annex at Alemeth, where she discovers to her disgust the previous Steerswoman in charge of the place, the late Mira, has allowed the back-up library to decay into a disorganized pile of rotted tomes. The information she wants may be in the pile but it will take ages to track it down.

[I forget now how much of my time as a shelf pixie at Dana Porter Arts Library was taken up walking the stacks looking for misfiled books but it was a significant fraction. The whole section about re-indexing a scrambled library speaks to me]

As it turns out, Alemeth is also where Janus went to ground and while he seems happy to see his old friend Rowan, he isn't going to open up to her if he can help it. He reluctantly tells her that he resigned because of cowardice; it seems like there's more to the story than that but he's not sharing. It also becomes clear that even if they were friends in the past, something significant has changed and they are not friends now.

Rowan soon has more important things to worry about. Demons, apex predators the Outskirters feared enough to avoid if at all possible, begin venturing into Alemeth, something that has never happened before. Demons come by their name honestly and the carnage that follows their arrival is pretty horrific. Each wave is worse than the one before. Since wizards are known to control the behavior of monsters like dragons, it seems reasonable that one is behind this; past experience suggests it must be Slado, trying to keep Rowan from finding something in the archives.

Things take an unexpected turn when Janus betrays a familiarity with demon behavior. The demons eventually overpower him and carry him off into uncharted territory. Rowan and her companions set out in pursuit, hoping to save Janus or at least capture the wizard responsible for ordering the demons to attack.

What follows is fascinating, a lengthy exploration of an alien ecology. Unlike certain other books I got into flame-wars over, the non-terrestrial organisms in this demon-haunted world are only in very loosest sense analogous to ones we know in this era on Earth. When Rowan first cuts demons open, she finds organs so unfamiliar their functions are largely conjectural; only observation allows her to assign functions. Their behavior is similarly alien, although careful observation can allow a human to work out why it is they do what they do.

As so often happens in this series, Rowan experiences moments of blinding insight and as seems to be the pattern in these books while part of her epiphanies are wonderful, the implications are appalling (although consistent with what we have seen before). The basic problem is the two ecologies on this world are mutually hostile and for one to grow, the other has to shrink. Adding in the detail that there are thinking entities on both sides only makes the issue worse because the way this is set up, peaceful, stable coexistence is not obviously one of the options.

This is a weightier book than the first two or it would be if it was on paper and not an ebook. The Steerswoman is about 100,000 words, The Outskirter's Secret is about 140,000 words. The Lost Steersman is longer yet at 162,000 words. I believe it is no coincidence that the more familiar-seeming the setting, the shorter the book; what drives the length is the need to convey the alien ecology Rowan is exploring in the particular book.

I meant to mention the prose in previous reviews; it's deceptively simple appearing but very effect at conveying information. Take for example this description of a demon from early in the book:

The creature stood just over five feet tall: a gray-mottled vertical column of flesh, strange muscles shifting beneath the skin as it raised first one, then each other low-kneed, flat-footed leg, its body weaving in a circular motion as it walked. Its four arms splayed out, horizontal from the top of its body, then angling downward at sharp-jointed elbows. It had no head, no visible face or eyes, no apparent difference between front or back or sides.


With this one from after Rowan has gotten to know the species better:

Tan was making, Rowan realized, not many statements, but one great statement, one single thing that grew before the eyes of the crowd, each watcher waiting for the next idea to be added to the rest, linked to the rest, made part of the whole.

Imagine it, Rowan thought: to say something and have it stand before the eyes of all, to be judged by all, as one unified expression.


In between those two moments the demons go from something described in fairly abstract terms to entities whose sex and identity Rowan understands. They have also gone from wandering monsters, inhumane forces of nature presumed to be under the control of Rowan's unseen foe, to people and this is reflected in the words Kirstein chooses.

I'm generally reading books more typical of modern F&SF before and after the Steerswoman books and the contrast in basic competence is pretty stark. There is a lot of awful prose out there and it doesn't seem to be an impediment to sales. That's damning this with faint praise; the prose is more than merely competent but in a way that does not draw attention to itself.

The Outskirter's Secret came out in 1992. The Lost Steersman was published in 2003. In between those two dates lamentations from those who feared we'd never see how the story came out could be heard across the land. While four books are too small a sample to draw conclusions, watch in awe as I do it anyway: publishing her books in pairs with about a decade between pairs seems to be a thing that Kirstein does. I note that about a decade has passed since the most recent book was published.


The first chapter can be read here.


The book can be purchased here:

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

I have no memory of the next book at all; what I thought was the plot of The Language of Power was actually the second half of this. Hrm.

So, that Janus, huh? He and Fletcher make a nice matched set: both of them are doing terrible things for reasons that are not themselves necessarily terrible.

Foreshadowing for Slado, maybe?

(Deleted comment)
Speaking of details I could have mentioned:

The straight edge, the end of the Inland Sea, was a mere two hundred feet away; they dared not try to get closer.

The lip ran south by southwest, stretching off to become invisible in the hazy distance. On the far horizon: a tiny, dim, gray shape— another cliff. The eye could not doubt that the sun-silvered line ended at that place.

Seawater poured over the edge, seeming almost static in its smoothness. But the power of the moving water was revealed by the sound: a continual, rushing roar, so loud it seemed more matter than sound. It was as if the noise itself possessed mass, weighting the three people in place under its pressure.


Assuming this is an Earth-sized world, that means the falls are about five kilometers across? So twice as wide, perhaps more, as Iguazu Falls?

Edited at 2014-05-06 05:39 pm (UTC)

The scale of the falls bothered me when I first encountered them in '03 but now that I've done the math they don't seem so implausible. I had images of something the size of the Med being drained over the edge of something as wide as Lake Ontario: not sustainable.


I'm only part way through The Language of Power right now, but I was partly wondering if the Dolphin Stairs aren't actually a construct of the initial terraforming so that there'd be a stable, contained area where Earth life could take hold after Routine Bioform Clearance.

This maps breaks my recent comments. Let me delete and fix.

This reminds me of something I meant to mention:




That needs a scale but it covers a comparatively small part of the world.

And in a single, elegant movement of thought, so graceful it astonished Rowan herself, the steerswoman created in her mind both the largest map she had ever conceived and the smallest, simultaneously.
The largest was of the world itself, whose shape and size she knew from the secret and intimate interplay of mathematics, but which she now seemed to see whole, all open sweep beyond all horizons, curving to meet itself at the other side, complete, entire— and huge, so huge.
The smallest map was, to scale, that part of the world known by humankind.
The smallest map was crowded; the greatest, nearly empty.
And there, just outside the smaller map, the steerswoman with casual precision marked her own position, as if with a bright, silver needle; and she saw and felt the greater map rock, turn, orient, descend (or ascend, she could not tell which), approaching, adjusting and finally matching, point for point those distant cliffs, those nearer hills, this shoreline, this rock-strewn beach, the spray-splashed boulder on which Rowan stood, wet to the knees, arms thrown wide, head tilted back, breathing salt-tang air, and laughing for wonder.


Edited at 2014-05-06 05:43 pm (UTC)

Yes. Working out what Janus was doing was one of the most emotionally shocking moments I've encountered in an SF book.

And yet it's basically what the Outskirters do.

The Steerswoman series is utterly brilliant, perhaps the best I've ever read in all my 40+ years of reading, in the ability to convey an alien world.I'll looking forward to reading the next two books in the series.

The basic problem is the two ecologies on this world are mutually hostile and for one to grow, the other has to shrink. Adding in the detail that there are thinking entities on both sides only makes the issue worse because the way this is set up, peaceful, stable coexistence is not obviously one of the options.

I am so very impressed by how well these books show Rowan figuring out these differences and what they mean. I think Orson Scott Card is trying to show something similar with the hierarchy of foreignness in Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide, but it doesn't work nearly so well.

"The whole section about re-indexing a scrambled library speaks to me."

Hah! yes. (Also, I've helped open a bookstore and move a library. so: YES.) When she came up with a solution I got perhaps a little more excited than was warranted. :)

And yes, the prose is wonderful. It manages to be poetic at times, but always on point and with purpose.

"I note that about a decade has passed since the most recent book was published."

I know that she has mentioned a fifth book, but it doesn't seem to be finished and I know she's had health issues.