The Outskirter’s Secret by Rosemary Kirstein
The Outskirter’s Secret, Book Two in the STEERSWOMAN series by Rosemary Kirstein, was originally published in 1992. It was reissued, along with the other two books in the series, in 2014. This review may contain spoilers for The Steerswoman.
At the end of The Steerswoman, Steerswoman Rowan had made an intuitive leap about the nature of the Guidestars, celestial objects that fill the night sky in her world and are a point of amazing stability. Rowan not only figured out the origin of the objects, but conjectured that one had fallen, and that the wizards had something to do with it. As The Outskirter’s Secret opens, she and her Outskirter companion Bel are on their way into the marginal lands everyone calls the Outskirts to warn the nomadic tribes who live there of possible danger from a wizard named Slado. Rowan hopes to find the fallen Guidestar as well.
To succeed at this, Rowan will have to be accepted by the insular tribespeople… if in fact she can even survive the Outskirts themselves, with flora and fauna nothing like the Inner Lands she is used to.
There is a lot to like in The Outstkirter’s Secret, especially if, like Kirstein herself, you are interested in the development of human societies and cultures — and what happens when different cultures meet. If you like worldbuilding at its foundational level, the building blocks so to speak, you will probably enjoy this book too.
Personally, I enjoyed the “puzzle” aspect of the story, as I pieced together the history of the tribespeople and the world itself in more detail.
That said, The Outskirter’s Secret is too long for its story. We spend a lot of time with Rowan and Bel, hacking through the redgrass and confronting new animals, many of which are dangerous. One of my favorite moments comes when Bel, who seems fearless, orders Rowan to silence and huddles frozen in their camp as something approaches, then leaves, something that hums. The idea that there is something in the Outskirts that can scare Bel is, well, scary. Once we reach a sizable tribe of Outskirters and stay with them, the story slows down. We meet many secondary characters and observe everyday life among the nomads… for a very, very long time.
Even the book’s climax, which involves the true power of the Guidestars, extreme weather events, and active danger, is slow and abstract. For something that’s an emergency, it goes on for a long time, and involves migrating away from the danger at first, and then digging in to wait it out. Both are written in matter-of-fact, slightly remote terms that do not evoke danger or urgency.
Much of what is discussed in this book is setting the stage for upcoming events, but I do want the story to move along, and the leisurely pace here left me too much time to worry about the very things Kirstein was setting up as pillars of the society. For instance, there is no “greengrass” in the Outskirts. Only two kinds of grasses grow there; redgrass and blackgrass. Blackgrass is poisonous. Redgrass isn’t, and the tribespeople’s goats can eat it, but there is minimal nutritional value in it. Somehow, for generations (maybe a hundred years?) the goats have survived, and the humans survived on the goats, and that doesn’t make sense to me — but if the story had been carrying me along, with stakes and tension, I probably wouldn’t have stopped to gnaw on this point (which is actually minor).
At the end of The Outskirter’s Secret, Rowan has acquired much vital evidence about the history of humans in this world and the risk they face with the wizard Slado (who, so far, has not made an appearance). A human intermediary villain has been unmasked, and much has been revealed to us about the true nature of things. I only wish this book had moved a little faster to create its complications and reveal its secrets.