The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein
Originally published in 1989, The Steerswoman, by Rosemary Kirstein, was reissued by the author in 2013, along with the rest of the four existing books in the STEERSWOMAN series. This first book introduces the world of steerswoman Rowan, and the order of steerswomen (and some men), who travel the world gathering and sharing information and knowledge. There is only one kind of knowledge steerswomen don’t have — magic.
When the book opens, Rowan has stopped at an inn to question the innkeeper about a strange stone she found years ago, inside the trunk of a tree she cut down. The rules of society are these: a steerswoman will answer any question you ask if she knows the answer, and any person must answer the questions asked by a steerswoman. The wizards refuse to share their knowledge or answer questions, but they provide valuable protection to the cities and towns they inhabit, so as the book opens, it seems that there is a fragile détente between the steerswomen and the wizards. That’s going to change, and quickly.
At the inn, Rowan meets a “barbarian” Outskirter, Bel, who joins her on the road. As you might have guessed, she is from the outskirts of mapped territory (steerswomen make a lot of maps). On their way back to the steerswomen’s archives, they are attacked by the soldier of a wizard. When they reach the town of Donner, preparing to catch a ship to the archive, a swarm of fiery reptiles called dragons set fire to their inn and the blaze soon spreads. Rowan is beginning to take these attacks personally. Her interest in the strange stones seems to have attracted the attention of the wizards, and it is very negative attention. Rowan plans to investigate further, with Bel as her companion and bodyguard, but to do this in a way that hides her plans from the spies of the wizards, she must do the impossible — lie. If she is going to lie, she must leave the order of steerswomen.
Kirstein’s concept of “open source” information is a fascinating bit of worldbuilding, and part of the fun of The Steerswoman is watching Rowan work both within it and around it. Rowan’s journey introduces her to William, a blacksmith’s son who has learned to do some magic, a fact he tries to hide. As they grow closer to a trove of the strange stones, Rowan creates and discards theories that explain the strange trajectory of the objects, which litter the earth as if they’ve been thrown from a great height and a great distance. The danger mounts as more attempts are made on her and her party, until she is finally captured by the sibling wizards Shammer and Dhree.
The book’s pace picks up once Rowan is the guest/prisoner of these two. Until then, while interesting, the book meanders rather than striding forward, and I have the feeling that lots of information is dropped in that’s going to matter in later books. Certainly the “guidestars,” which appear in the sky, are very important pieces of the puzzle. I labeled this book “fantasy” based on the designation of things like magic, but the series has a science fictional premise.
I will nitpick the ending and say that Rowan’s intuitive leap about the origin of the stones is not completely supported by the text. I mean, the concept is there, but in school when we did a math problem we had to show all our work, and Kirstein skipped some steps, unless I missed them somewhere. I also wondered when Rowan says to her local wizard that “they both know the world is changing.” I wasn’t really sure anyone thought that except Rowan — well, I mean, and me — so that was a surprise.
Those problems aside, I enjoyed The Steerswoman enough to order the second one, The Outskirter’s Secret, and buy the third book, The Lost Steersman, from a local used bookstore. In the current climate of endless information but little knowledge, of Big Data, Big Analytics, black-box secrecy, and lies, the steerswoman’s code of open information is refreshing.
[readers beware, this comment contains major spoilers for the first book]
I think the most important “showing of work” for Rowan’s solution to the puzzle of the stones are 1) her recurring problem/question about the stones being flung from a great height by a giant (with the resulting concept that she figures out things could stay in permanent orbit above the Earth if “thrown” correctly) and 2) the speculation on whether Guidestars are far away like real stars or not (I believe this is mainly in one part of the book — she thinks about this to distract herself from when Bel is torturing the guy, comparing the fact stars are extremely far away to the fact the sun is closer to the earth and moves around it, and then starts trying to contextualize the non-flickering, immobile Guidestars in this situation, and Bel interrupts her before we hear her conclusion), which we can then see she puts together with the idea of things in orbit to figure out that the Guidestars are objects in stationary orbit high above the Earth and a Guidestar coming down could lead to the “thrown by a giant” scattering she observed.
Yes, it certainly is interesting to read this book of the late 80s, when the internet was in its infancy, and compare it to the rise and fall of open information that has taken place since then!