The Lost Steersman by Rosemary Kirstein
In the third book of Rosemary Kirstein’s STEERSWOMAN series, steerswoman Rowan steps off the edge of her known world and risks her life in the process. Originally published in 2003, this book has been reissued. My review may contain spoilers for The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Secret.
The Lost Steersman begins with a prologue, a letter from Rowan to the Prime of the Steerswomen, recapping events in the first two books and warning the Steerswomen of the serious danger from the as-yet-unseen wizard Slado, who has a weapon of mass destruction and is tuning it up. Leaving this critical risk behind, Rowan then goes to the village of Alemeth, both to hide out (since not only Slado, but other wizards could be tracking her) but also to dig out more history on the origins of her world. There is an Archive Annex there, but Rowan’s hopes for data are dashed, at least at first, when she learns that the previous Steerswoman assigned there was more interested in hanging out at the pub with the villagers than doing her duty. The Archive was a party house for the locals. Rowan’s shock and disapproval of the lax state of things put her at odds with her two local assistants, Gwen and Steffie.
I’m reading these books within recent intervals of one another, which means plotting and writing patterns become obvious in a way they won’t if you read the sequel to a book months or even years later. In this book, two plot choices become glaringly obvious. The first is Steffie, a strapping young man who seems a little slow at first but isn’t. He has a relationship with Rowan that follows that of William in the first book beat for beat. It’s not necessarily a problem, but it distracted me from the more interesting things that happen in this book.
Trying to come to grips with an Annex in disarray, Rowan soon faces a problem closer to her heart. Steersmen are rare, but they do exist, and Rowan trained with one, Janus. Janus repudiated the order and disappeared. Rowan finds him in Alemeth. His presence, and his much-changed mood, are mysteries, but before she can figure him out Rowan is distracted when the creatures called demons attack the village. The creatures are drawn to Janus. Then Janus vanishes.
Rowan figures out a way to defeat the demons. She, another steerswoman, and Steffie set out in Janus’s boat to follow him. Their journey takes them out of the inland sea and beyond the boundaries of their world, and Rowan follows Janus into a place even stranger and more dangerous.
Sadly, Rowan must also confront what has changed Janus and determine whether he can be rehabilitated. This brings me to the second repeating plot point. Generally, if someone is doing something really harmful in these books, that someone will be male. The wizards, as a group, are preparing to do a bad thing, and while we have seen one female wizard and heard of another, the majority seems to be guys. (Of course, Slado may not be. Slado may not even be human. We don’t know.) At this point I suspect the “men muck things up” element is less of a plot choice and more of a theme.
The increasing strangeness of The Lost Steersman worked well for me. I loved watching Rowan puzzle out the nature of the “demons,” and learn to communicate in at least a rudimentary way with them. Kirstein does a good job of taking ideas that are usually repugnant to humans and presenting them in a way that lets us see their value to the community that embraces them.
I also like the sexual connections in these books. Sexual activity is egalitarian, and nobody fusses about your preference. It is also based clearly and completely on consent. This is presented in a simple and matter of fact way throughout the story. A decade ahead of society focusing (correctly) on the importance of consent, Kirstein was modeling it in her world. (I have to say I’m not sure the wizards are on board with the consent model.)
I don’t completely understand the logistics of Rowan’s world, specifically the Steerswoman’s Ban. A steerswoman will give any information anyone asks her for, even an enemy, if she has it. Conversely, everyone must answer a steerswoman when she asks a question. If you refuse, you are put under the Steerswomen’s Ban, and no steerswoman will ever answer a question for you again. This world has no instantaneous communication, and steerswomen travel — that’s part of their job — so they are all over the place. How does a steerswoman let them all know not to answer the questions of Joe from Some Small Town?
Despite the imminent risk to humanity that we were told about in the end of the previous book, the early chapters of The Lost Steersman linger among the lives of the Alemeth townspeople; detailed explanations of silk worm farming, a budding romance, gossip about the new steerswoman and what a buzzkill she is. It doesn’t seem like Rowan herself feels any urgency.
And, again, while Rowan’s later discoveries are fascinating, they unfold slowly. In many books, the focus on the intellectual and somewhat abstract would be fine, but in this series, there is a Big Bad danger and it’s close. Rowan’s period of enforced reflection, and the long delirious journey back to the ship, seem paced wrong.
The few glitches and unanswered questions in worldbuilding are quibbles for me; the pacing and lack of concern is more serious, and is a real deficit in the series for me. Even so, I like it enough and am intrigued enough that I am going to order The Language of Power, the most recently reissued book. Kirstein says on her website that she plans to complete all six of the planned books. I’m looking forward to how she wraps this series up.
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