Reading Round-up 2014: week 5 – Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman’s Road
Posted June 25, 2014on:
(Both titles listed below are available separately as ebooks – they were also available at one time as a single volume titled: The Steerswoman’s Road.)
Some books are so unique and memorable and unexpected and so good that you wish you could read them again for the first time.
And then there are the stories that you want to reread over and over again like comfort food. Because they have all the tropes and character types that you always love. Including the kind that are depressingly hard to find.
Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman (and sequels) manages to be both of these at the same time, and has therefore ruined me for all other books. Ever.
Rowan is a Steerswoman. Wikipedia says this means that she’s a “traveling scholar” – but that’s not really doing her role in her culture justice. Because scholars, as much as I love them, tend to produce work that’s packaged in a way that’s hard for people outside of academia to access – and accessing academia often costs money. Steerswomen, on the other hand, usually spend a large portion of their time traveling from town to town, sharing the knowledge they’ve gained, as well as acquiring new information. One of their most sacred rules is that they have to truthfully answer any question anyone poses to them. In return, others must do the same, or be put under a ban and never have any Steerswoman answer any of their questions ever again. This may seem trivial, but Steerswomen were originally navigators – thus their name – and much of the information they collect is practical. Refusing to answer a Steerswoman’s question could mean they never warn you of the blight that’s spreading, and how to to guard against it.
There are, indeed, academies and halls where all the journals that Steerswomen keep on their journeys eventually go, and where some of the Steerswomen stay and maintain records and work on more theoretical pursuits. But Steerswomen are like modern public librarians as much as they are like modern scholars – their purpose is to provide access to knowledge as much as it is to collect knowledge.
You can already see a big part of why I like this book, I’m sure.
I love not only that Rowan is a scholar/librarian but also that her role as librarian is more than just a nod and a wink about how awesome books and libraries are; The Steerswoman asks much deeper questions than that. It repeatedly deals with the ethics of providing information – what it means to do so, or to withhold it – and how Steerwomen navigate issues like privacy, respect, and distrust.
AND – it gets even better.
Rowan isn’t simply wandering aimlessly about. Like most Steerwomen, she has a particular topic that she’s researching. In her case, she’s looking for the origins and purpose of some very strange jewels that have come into her possession. Like any good interdisciplinary scholar, she’s using science – yes, SCIENCE – as well as interviews, research, and deductive reasoning in order to achieve her goal.
Very early on in the book, two things happen. First, Rowan acquires a companion, the wonderfully competent and clever Bel. Who, unlike Rowan, does not come from the agricultural towns and villages of the Inner Lands, but rather from the harsh landscape of the Outskirts. Secondly, someone tries to kill Rowan, and she suspects it’s because of the questions she’s been asking about the jewels.
In lesser hands, the mystery of the jewels could have been merely interesting, but what Kirstein does instead is nothing short of amazing. Rowans’ scholarly search is as fundamental to the worldbuilding of the story as it is to our understanding of her as a character. Rather than just a princess in a tower to help move the plot along, Rowan’s search for answers leads her to bigger mysteries. Even more than that, the gap between what Rowan doesn’t understand but we do about science and the world around us means that every new clue that Rowan finds out about the jewels gives us new clues about the world she lives in. Yet Kirstein does this all without Rowan (or Bel) ever coming across as stupid or incompetent; quite the opposite, in fact, as it’s often very clear just how clever and imaginative both need to be in order to make as much progress as they do.
Also, Bel is awesome and Rowan and Bel’s friendship and working relationship is so wonderful and fun and functional.
And that’s all just within the first few chapters. Did I mention it just gets even better from there?
Explaining the set up for this novel in detail will reveal too much of the plot of the first book. WHICH YOU SHOULD READ RIGHT NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY.
Suffice to say that Rowan and Bel are still as awesome as ever, and still traveling together. This time their journey takes them out of the Inner Lands and into Bel’s home: the Outskirts.
“The camp was pitched against the edge of the forest, one side nestled beneath overhanging evergreens, the other open to a green, rolling meadow, where the tent shadows now stretched away from the vanishing sun, long fingers indicating the east.”
Since I can’t say much more than that without everything being full of spoilers, I want to instead talk about Kirstein’s prose. It’s lovely and expertly done in all four books, but this novel in particular is excellent for highlighting just how talented Kirstein is at her craft. While there were strange goings on in the first book, much of it still took place in a setting that was familiar to Rowan herself. It was also a setting with a great many similarities to other fantasy novels, and to certain periods in Western history, so it’s familiar to readers as well, in a way. But in Outskirter’s Secret, we enter into territory that is entirely new to Rowan, and less familiar to many readers as well, and we encounter creatures quite unlike any other we’ve seen before.
“The greengrass vanished.
It was a subtle process as Bel had first described…: first one noticed occasional patches of redgrass, then more, and eventually one realized that for indeterminate length of time no greengrass had been seen at all.”
All of this is told in Rowan’s scientific yet poetic voice, through which Kirstein is able to paint us pictures of the this new world that Rowan finds herself in – images that are as clear, accurate, and detailed as photographs but as lyrical and wistful as watercolors.
“The breeze was in her face, speeding wild lines of brown and red directly toward her; it was sinister, threatening. The colors seemed to hover, sourceless, ineffable.
…Rowan wished it would rain; wished the colors to gray, the grass to dampen and silence. She watched the grass tops dizzily and stumbled along behind the Outskirter.”
This series really deserves to be read and talked about and praised, rather than dwelling half-forgotten in obscurity. So GO. Get yourself a copy and read it. And tell other people about it.