The Language of Power by Rosemary Kirstein
2014’s The Language of Power is the fourth and final complete book in Rosemary Kirstein’s THE STEERSWOMAN series. Kirstein is hardly the worst offender in the ranks of writers who stopped writing before a series was finished. Still, the sense of urgency that develops in the final few pages of the book left me hanging, almost literally. Since this is the fourth book in the series, this review might contain spoilers for the previous books.
The cliffhanger is one thing, but the book left me disappointed and frustrated in other ways, too. In the previous book, The Lost Steersman, steerswoman Rowan interacted with a native species previously unknown to most people of the Inner Lands, and learned to communicate with them. She traveled beyond the limits of the Inner Lands and was starting to grasp exactly what had happened in centuries past. In The Language of Power, Rowan is back on the trail of the destructive wizard Slado, and it’s as if she learned nothing new, or doesn’t care. She did send off a long letter to the Steerswoman Prime, but that’s basically it for the revelations that made the third book genuinely original.
At the end of The Lost Steersman, Janus, the steersman in question, was identified as a serious threat to life in the Inner Lands, but he isn’t even mentioned in this book. This felt like a glaring continuity glitch. I know he’s not in the book, but Rowan doesn’t even seem to think of him and the problem he represents.
In the town of Donner, Rowan seeks to discover the early years of Slado. Donner is a town like several Inner Lands towns we’ve seen in the earlier books. Rowan finds a place to stay and begins tracking down informants from forty years earlier. She studiously ignores her Outskirter friend Bel, who is also there undercover. When a beggar catches Rowan’s attention, she discovers that William, their friend who is an apprentice to the wizard Corvus, is there too, also undercover.
William says that the wizards are concerned about Slado’s plans but hesitant to go up against him, so William has run away to investigate by himself. The previous wizard of Donner, Kieran, underwent a marked personality change in the two years before he died — and Slado was his apprentice when he did die. This seems like a worthwhile mystery, at least on the surface.
The other books tended to move slowly, with a sprint of energy in the final 40 pages, and this one doesn’t vary from that structure. In previous books in the series, the slowness was balanced by the observations of different societies, and the pleasure of watching Rowan speculate and ultimately learn. No such joys exist in The Language of Power. Mostly, Rowan eats lots of good food, which is described in detail, and just misses the people she needs to talk to — except for the one who actually has data she could use. Him, she discards as a witness based on the statement of one townsperson, who says he’s senile. Disregarding all her steerswoman training, Rowan writes the elder off.
I’m a big fan of the slow burn, but this book taxed my patience. At some point you have to take the simmering pot off the burner or bring it to a boil.
William is interesting and it’s clear that he isn’t telling Rowan everything, but he doesn’t bring enough conflict or intrigue to make up for the pace. In one long passage, Rowan and William go to study the dragons that the current wizard in Donner, Jannik, secretly controls. The dragons, William says, are “programmed,” a word we understand immediately, and Rowan figures out quickly. They watch the dragons graze, basically, for a very long time. Once they see a pattern, they engage with the dragons and ape their pattern for another long stretch. Any tension leaches slowly out of the scene, paragraph by paragraph, and by the end I even forgot for a minute what they were there to do, which was snatch a dragon.
The climactic ending features visuals reminiscent of a scene in the 1995 Keanu Reeves movie Johnny Mnemonic, and in those final pages we get a bushel of new information, or at least confirmation, about the guidestars, the wizards and other caches of data in the inhabited parts of this world. It’s exciting, but nothing follows it.
Kirstein says she is working on the fifth book, The Changes of the Dark. I hope that’s true, and I hope it offers more than scrumptious food, clever townsfolk, and long descriptive passages. I hope the book begins to put the pieces together and answer the questions we’ve had since Book One.
Kirstein was dealing with a serious bout of cancer, so suggesting she was an offender in leaving readers with a cliffhanger is a bit unfair. I’m glad she is back and writing.
I am too, as I say. I’m sorry to hear she was ill, and glad she’s recovered.
I had a much more positive response to these books than you did, Marion, but it’s been years since I read them. I have held onto them (the first volume combines The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Road), meaning I thought they were worth re-reading, so I hope the next two do come out. I started the series at about the same time that I read Walter Jon Williams’s Metropolitan and City on Fire, which was “fantasy told as if it were science fiction” while the Steerswoman is “science fiction told as if it were fantasy”, so the two series are associated in my mind based on that.
I’m loving the “science fiction told as fantasy” aspect.
I think these books are dated a bit and that’s feeding my disappointment. I look forward to the next book, to see how she’s addressed the decades of change in (our) society, and in the genre.
Society and the genre are always changing. So today’s books will also seem dated soon enough. In my cubicle dwelling days, the corporate big shots were always telling us, “The only constant is change!” Translation: “You WILL become obsolete, sooner than you think!” ;-)