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The Steerswoman #1

The Steerswoman

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Fascinated by the opalescent and perfectly smooth jewels--clearly no natural product--Rowan pursues the secret of their origin, a quest that leads her to secretive wizards who kill without compunction

279 pages, Paperback

First published August 13, 1989

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Rosemary Kirstein

7 books277 followers

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5 stars
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583 (18%)
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44 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 405 reviews
Profile Image for carol..
1,538 reviews7,883 followers
April 24, 2022
This is one of those books that I wish I had found when it was published in 1989, or even in the following decade or two. I would have loved the characters and the world. Still, it was enjoyable in its own way, if limited by modern interpretations.

Remember fantasy in the 70s and 80s? They usually followed the adventures of men, although you could have a woman in your adventuring party (usually as the cleric or ranger). Rarely, I'd run into the sword-sorceress combo as epitomized in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress anthologies. The Steerswoman takes that duo and does something even more interesting, taking the 'magic' user part of the equation back to archetype: a knowledge-holder. Rowan is a 'Steerswoman,' a group of people that wander, seek knowledge and provide information. No fee, except that their own questions must be answered. She meets a woman from the largely unknown but fierce Outriders, Bel, and their adventure begins.

The premise of knowledge-seeking as an occupation was fascinating to me. It provides a great introduction for the reader into the world, as Rowan both asks and answers questions. But also the idea of the head-centered approach attempting to understand before reacting was just pleasurable. It elevated what have been a very standard quest format into something more thoughtful than overcome a monster/opposition ever chapter. The writing is investing a lot in the internal thought process, as opposed to Terry Brooks, Jordan, Donaldson or David Eddings. Sanderson usually feels kind of mechanical and not-active to me, and this certainly jumped into events both large and small.

"She was like a swimmer, exploring by touch alone the bottom of some rocky pool, trying to create a chart for something that could not be seen, a chart not for the eyes, but for the touch of the mind."

Investing in that head-centric approach also provided opportunity to witness character development. Rowan rather sloppily thinks of Bel as a 'barbarian' when they first meet, but she quickly realizes that it's not the relative sophistication as much as a vastly different personality type from an insular culture. Yet it's not a facile assimilation; though they progress with mutual understanding, later in the story they discover they still can make errors, both in cultural assumptions as well as deep differences in personal values.  

"The Outskirter remained both curious and adaptable, her comments again that intriguing combination of ingenuousness and perspicacity. Rowan found herself ever more comfortable in Bel’s company, recognizing in the other not a like mind, but a complementary one."

World-building is interesting. Much like Andre Norton's Witch World, I have the sense that this fantasy-seeming situation is somehow Earth-adjacent, so as I read, I found myself attempting to work out the connection. I confess, it took my co-readers to point out the logical conclusion of a big scene! Much like the Steerswomen, the reader is given many hints about the magic of the world.

“Facts, ideas fit together. It’s the fitting, the paths that connect them, that matters. The pieces can change, but the fitting lies beneath it all."

Pacing was one of the more troublesome aspects for me. As Rowan and Bel journey, the relationship builds as they take on a series of objectives. However, the narrative changes to a third character and disrupts the story. It honestly felt like Kirsten shoehorned in a short story, without even tailoring it to the situation.

Other than that, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I feel like the character interaction was different from what I've read with two female leads, along with Rowan's head-centered approach. That said, I thought there were serious pacing issues, along with an equally serious body count done in ways that seemed incongruent, that left me more ambivalent. Still, I'm curious about the world and could be persuaded to continue.

Three and a half blue gems, rounding down.

Many thanks to Andreas, Anna, Mitticus, Nataliya, Phil and Stephen for the buddy read and interesting discussions!

Discussion in Sci-Fi group about it and subsequent books: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/...
Profile Image for Nataliya.
745 reviews11.9k followers
March 12, 2022
“It came to her that there were reasons behind events, reasons she did not know, and that the world contained many things that were other than what they seemed.”
The Steerswoman is an introduction to what seems to be an interesting story to come — which is both its advantage and downfall. On one hand, I’m interested enough to see what happens first and how soon will the characters catch on to what I’m pretty sure I know is going on. On the other hand, it seems that all the interesting things are yet to come, and what we got was barely an intro, an extended first chapter to put the characters in the places we need them to be for when the actual interesting events start happening.

There’s not much that’s really wrong with this story - well, except for the pacing which always feels just a tad off and a bit staccato, and characterization that for some reason fails to make me feel like I really got to know the characters besides the superficial acquaintance. It seems to me upon some reflection that I like the premise and the promise of what’s to come a bit more than the story I actually read.
“Sometimes I feel people call it magic, because they want magic.”

The Steerswoman is set in a world that at the first glance seems to be conventional fantasyland, but with enough hints that there’s a bit more happening under the surface. Our titular Steerswoman is Rowan, a woman belonging to a traditional society of knowledge-seekers and cartographers/navigators that explore the world and share their knowledge freely, but in return expect others to freely share the information as well. And on the other end there are wizards who are powerful and secretive and do not get along with the steerswomen (and an occasional steersman). And one day one Steerswoman’s curiosity leads to consequences that may reveal a bit more about this world than used to be widely known.
“To protect the hope of an answer: that was the goal, the duty and the pleasure.”

“She was like a swimmer, exploring by touch alone the bottom of some rocky pool, trying to create a chart for something that could not be seen, a chart not for the eyes, but for the touch of the mind.”

I actually liked Rowan’s cool-headed, measured and rational worldview — she’s all about the scientific method, and that’s really great — but the other characters were unfortunately much less developed. Bel the Outskirter seemed to be mostly there to make quips about how Rowan’s approach should have been different, and Willem needed quite a bit more development to become even somewhat interesting. I hope in the subsequent books this improves.

But as for the story, as introduction-like as it can possibly be, there still was something that made me want to go on and see where it all takes off from here and his long it takes Rowan to work out the true nature of her world. And there were some actually troubling things that lent interesting moral greyness to this world (a certain torture scene by “good” characters comes to mind).

It did take me a few weeks to get through this short book, but I’m pretty sure the main culprit was the mental shock from Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine rather than the shortcomings of this story, so I can’t fault Rosemary Kirstein for that. So I think 3.5 stars is a fair rating, and enough interest to check out the rest (or at least what’s available since the first book was published in 1989, the fourth in 2004, and book 5 is yet to see the light of the day, so yeah).

Thanks to my buddy readers: Andreas, Anna, Carol, Mitticus, Phil and Stephen.

Also posted on my blog.
11 reviews1 follower
December 29, 2007
If you don't end up with a crush on the sidekick, you're not a lesbian.
Profile Image for Ryan.
270 reviews60 followers
January 7, 2022
Hard to believe that this was published in 1989. Seems lazy to say that this story has great characters that are likeable and complex. That the world building is incredibly detailed yet easy to read. All the positive book review clichés that you can imagine are suitable for this novel that often feels like science fiction masquerading as fantasy. A story that has wizards and dragons yet somehow manages not to cross the line into what I consider the fantastical.

I loved the idea of Steerswomen. People who can be depended upon to always tell the truth. That answer any question asked of them so long as you answer any question they may ask of you. It's a great concept to explore yet I mostly found myself enjoying the introspection of the characters as they navigated difficult circumstances.

More of my thoughts about this series can be found here
Profile Image for Robin.
488 reviews101 followers
February 4, 2017
How have I never heard of this series until now? I think the answer is that the mainstream speculative fiction community may not have been ready in 1989 for an extremely competent, well-educated, ethically driven woman to turn up and get shit done without even the slightest suggestion ever arising that she shouldn't be expected to do just that. And are they ready now? Ample evidence suggests perhaps still not, which is too bad for all of us. The least I can do to counteract this unfortunate fact is boost the signal when an excellent candidate for the canon comes along.

Things I loved:

The world building unfolds slowly and naturally. We are allowed to discover details of the steerswoman's social code and methodologies as they arise in the story. We encounter cultural differences between groups as the members themselves grapple with them.

Race, gender, and sexuality are all non-issues, neither attached to established norms nor highlighted as Importantly Different.

For once, it is a relief not to be reading a series where the stakes are immediately the highest of high. (You know the kind: world going to end, great forces of evil amassing, no hope for anyone unless heroes can find a way to overcome seemingly impossible odds to restore light and goodness and beauty.) Sometimes the world is already grim enough and you want to follow along as some capable, no-nonsense women investigate the origin of some mysterious gems and the reasons why certain powers that be want to misdirect their investigations.

There's a remarkable absence of whining. Also, no love triangles, or fraught romantic entanglements of any kind. Instead, we get smart characters talking through conundrums they observe in the world, challenges that must be overcome, mysterious forces that must be respected and counterbalanced to serve and protect the interests of society.

Doesn't this sound like something you want to be reading about right now?

"In every case where the jewels were found on one side of a thing, it's always been the northwest face. It's as if a giant flung them across the land--and the giant faced south-east."
"That may be the answer."
Rowan laughed, amused by the image. "No, it couldn't be, of course. He'd have to be far too tall, and far too strong."
"But why not, if it's just a question of size? There are more strange things in the world than you or I have seen."
Rowan felt a strange chill fall on her. She became aware of the space around and above her: the distance to the road, the edge of the forest close at hand. She sensed the area that the first line of trees defined, heard the wind whistling in the space that curved over their tops. She saw two women huddled by a fire, in a place that lay equally distant from each horizon, in the center of a circle. And she knew, with mapmaker's eyes, how small that circle was. The world was a very large place, and might well contain such things as giants large enough to scatter objects with a single toss, from the Long North Road to the heart of the Outskirts.
And yet...
"Well, let's see." Rowan shifted back a bit from the fire, leaving a wide clear area in front of her. She picked up her pen and, using the blunt end, sketched in the dirt....
"A graph," Rowan began. She prepared to elaborate, but her thoughts ran ahead, leaving her explanation somewhat abbreviated. "It charts the time it takes an object to fall. The horizontal distance traveled isn't a factor. We look at distance traveled here--" and she sketched a second figure beside the first. "Moving objects fall in a curve. The harder the object is thrown, the faster it moves, and the farther it can travel before falling. And, of course, it helps to start from high up." ...
"But your line doesn't show that the ground curves too. The earth is round."
Rowan stopped short. Bel continued. "You don't need to think about it, normally, but if you're pretending the giant is throwing past the horizon, it seems to me that it would make a difference."
"True." Rowan felt faintly embarrassed for having underestimated the level of Bel's knowledge. She knew aristocrats in Wulfshaven who doubted that the earth was round. ...
"True, it would make a difference," she repeated. "You have the curve of the earth's surface--" She drew a long arched line. "And the curve of the jewel's path." She drew a second, wildly out of scale, intersecting the first. "And, of course, the harder he threw, the more the arc flattens." She drew a flatter path, reaching farther past the curved "horizon."
She looked at the three lines for a long time. "That's odd."
She reached out and added one more line to the out-of-scale sketch. ... "According to this, if he threw something hard enough, it would never come down."
Profile Image for DivaDiane.
948 reviews90 followers
March 9, 2022
I can’t believe it took me nearly a month to eye-read this book! I loved it in almost every way. Perhaps it was just ever so slightly vague, where a bit more information would’ve been nice. But the characters are great and the story is interesting. I can’t believe I’d missed this book until now. Thanks, Ryan, for recommending it.
Profile Image for Allison Hurd.
Author 3 books704 followers
May 1, 2021
This has been heavily recommended by members of my book club, so I'm glad I finally got to it and even more glad that it was pretty dang great. WHAT IF academics were the most revered people on the planet, and knowledge was powerful and dangerous?


Things to love:

-The trope swap. So this is both epic fantasy and scifi and I am HERE for that.

-The premise. Who among us hasn't thought "it would be so different if people with knowledge were in power?" Kirstein had a lot of fun with this and it resonates deeply with me, even if it didn't aaalways make sense.

-The world. I'm dying to know how it got this way, and I think we'll find out. The extrapolation involved here was some amazing scifi.

-The logic. *happy sigh* I rarely see actual reasoning in books. So often it's some sort of quantum leap that the author needs to make for us so we can avoid a plot hole, and here it felt more like a logic puzzle you could figure out as you went.

-Modern feminism. Y'all! YALL! This author actually made a world in which gender is irrelevant most of the time, but it's not improbable in its gender blindness either. Wizards are almost all men, steerswomen are almost all women, so their titles are gendered, but it's not because someone can't do a certain job because of their pronouns and/or hormones. In fact they talk about this, how individuals can always overcome statistics, and size isn't always the determinant factor in someone's intelligence or physicality. I loved that. I loved the depiction of race less, but we take the wins we come across.

Things that didn't quite do it for me:

-The plot. This is a set up book, and therefore more about showing us all the pieces than it is about fitting anything together. Some of it felt a bit wasted, even though I enjoyed the journey.

-Torture. One of the things in the plot that didn't work was this torture scene. Apparently the author did an interview about the use of torture in her books, and I have to read it to figure out why the hell this was part of the book.

-Rowan. I like her role a lot, but I don't like her. I especially didn't like her when she temporarily switched jobs until it suited her to do otherwise and then she just kind of tarnished the whole institution because she saw her duty as a cloak she could take off when it got too cumbersome.

I think it was a little messy construction-wise, but it was also really enjoyable and I'll definitely continue, so 4 stars from me!
Profile Image for Maree.
804 reviews24 followers
May 18, 2011
I really liked this book, and I don't know that I can give a really clear definition of why. It's not an intensely gripping read, but it's definitely one I turn over in my mind and consider when I'm doing other things. I'm really interested in the world Kirstein has created -- okay no, not the world so much as the character of a Steerswoman (or man). Refreshing, by the way, that the Steersmen are sometimes just called Steerswomen as well because there are so few of them.

The idea behind a Steerswoman is that they are traveling scholars looking to supplement as well as share their knowledge. They are required to answer any question put to them by anyone and in turn, any question they ask must be answered, or the questioner will be placed under a ban where no Steerswoman will ever answer a question from them again. If they lie about an answer, same thing. This seems like it'd be rather difficult to enforce, considering this is set in times where they still travel on horses (and letters travel even slower) and they don't have photographs as a means of identifying who is under the ban. But I can appreciate the idea behind it, and the people seem to respect it enough, anyway. Aside from wizards, who pretty much ignore questions about their magic, and Outskirters, who aren't really familiar with 'civilized' customs. Guess which two groups the first two books deal with.

So we have our Steerswoman, Rowan, and her sidekick Bel (though I would never dare to call her a sidekick to her face), who is an Outskirter who decides to travel with her on a whim to see the Inner Lands. Despite their different ways, they become fast friends and companions who complement one another in battle as well as in thought. Bel is a fierce warrior and our introduction to all Inner customs, as Rowan has to explain them to her as they pass. There is a sharp and often witty rapport between the two which I really enjoy.

Our story begins with Rowan investigating the origins of a number of beautiful blue crystals that have been found in random locations throughout the land, highly polished and cut, but simply sprinkled throughout as if by a giant throwing them toward the east. With Bel as her faithful companion and a runaway boy named Will who has the makings of becoming a wizard himself, the three of them set off to investigate, dodging attacks, dragon fire, and false leads along the way. They eventually determine who is responsible for trying to throw them off track and kill them --

There were a few times in the book from chapter to chapter where the story would abruptly jump, usually over travel time or at the end of a chapter, the characters would outline a plan and we'd jump to the plan already having been carried out and see the results. I was startled by this at first, but really ended up liking it. It's like the author decided 'There's really no need to go through the process step by step if it's already been laid out into the plan. Let's get to the next part of the adventure!'

Okay, back to the Steerswomen. I really enjoyed how much it pained Rowan when she was unable to answer a question, and how much it annoyed her when someone would refuse to answer. I kept thinking that everyone should be so open toward one another, willing to have that free flow of information. And to have a profession where one simply keeps learning would be dreamy for me.

One thing I'm on the seesaw about is the way Rowan would sometimes get around the ban by not asking direct questions or simply answering without asking questions in return. I hated that she had to stop herself from asking and therefore only giving information with nothing in return. It seemed to defeat the whole purpose of a Steerswoman as well as the purpose of the ban. On the other hand, it was really the only way to glean unintentionally given information and keep the conversation flowing generally toward what she wanted to know. Ends justify the means?
Profile Image for Althea Ann.
2,232 reviews1,016 followers
September 29, 2013
Kirstein's 'Steerswoman' series had been highly recommended to me - and did not disappoint in the slightest. It's fun, well-crafted, well-characterized adventure with an original set-up and believable culture(s). Rowan is a Steerswoman. As the title might indicate, she is adept at nautical navigation, but the main goal of Steerswomen is to collect (and dissemintate) knowledge and information, write it down, and deliver it to Archives. As a valuable source of information, Steerswomen are greatly respected and deferred to. People think there is little they do not know. But Rowan has come across a mystery - some strange 'jewels,' the source of which is unknown, and about which strange rumors have collected. At a tavern, she meets Bel, a woman of the dangerous, barbarian Outskirts, who owns a whole belt fashioned of these jewels. Bel tells Rowan that her father crafted the belt, but that she could guide Rowan to the place where he found them, if she is up for a challenging journey. However, then the two women are attacked - and wizards seem to be behind it. Wizards are the traditional rivals of Steerswomen - but usually they keep out of each other's way, avoiding violence. What is it about these jewels that the wizards want kept secret?
Although the book is styled as a fantasy, it is obvious to the reader that this is a colony world, and that many of the things that these people consider to be magic are actually vestiges of high technology. Watching Bel and Rowan discover truths about their world is fascinating - but equally of interest is watching two culturally different people become fast friends.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,129 reviews1,202 followers
April 21, 2022
This is a very traditional, very tropey, very 1980s fantasy travelogue, notable for starring two women—a scholar and a warrior—who become friends and embark together on a quest for knowledge. I initially enjoyed the two leads and the refreshing difference from the typical portrayals of women in fantasy, but the book ultimately lost me in its slow pacing, focusing in on seemingly unimportant scenes, and casual violence—namely, many unregretted murders by our leads of anyone who gets in their way, including minors and noncombatants. To add insult to injury, there’s no solid ending either (evidently not even if you continue the series, which after more than three decades remains unfinished).

The book begins with an itinerant scholar, Rowan, in a tavern asking questions about some mysterious jewels. While there, she meets Bel, a young barbarian warrior interested in seeing more of the country, and the two decide to travel together. They discover that the secretive wizards are intent on stopping investigation of the jewels and therefore determine to investigate further, picking up along the way a 14-year-old boy, Willam, who is seeking to train as a wizard himself.

On the positive side, I enjoyed the gender-flipping of the main cast. Rowan and Bel are written in ways usually reserved for male characters in fantasy: both are adults (I’d place Rowan in her early 30s though she’s perhaps intended as mid to late 20s); both are casually self-confident, without vulnerability, loss, trauma or powerlessness contributing anything substantial to their psyches or stories; both are sexually experienced without sex or romance playing any major role; and they have a nerd/jock dynamic usually characteristic of male friends in fiction. (With women, authors usually go for rebel/conformist, which tends to make one far more interesting than the other.) Rowan also struck me as immediately endearing, with her passion for learning and educating others. And it’s fun to see a fantasy world in which magic may not actually exist, but instead is misunderstood technology.

However. There are a lot of a howevers here.

The plot: Turns into a travelogue and moves in fits and starts, with long dull scenes that had me impatient with the middle section of the book, particularly around everything to do with Willam. Also, as noted above, this book seems to function as a prelude to a longer story and doesn’t resolve or answer much in the end.

The characters: Don’t get much depth beyond what we initially see. Their personalities and interactions are believable enough, but I wouldn’t call them complex. Willam’s role in the story is particularly frustrating: I understand why he’s frustrated with Rowan and Bel (he’s 14 and feels like he has a right to be included in everything), but I wasn’t here for him and didn’t appreciate how much of the middle of the book was told from his POV. I’m not sure whether to say Willam is also a gender-flip (there’s a lot of fantasy featuring multiple men and a girl, after all), or whether he’s a concession to the conventions of the 80s (before YA took off, boy heroes were far more common in fantasy than they are today).

The world: Doesn’t make much sense when you think about it. No one actually seems to rule this land, nor to be trying to do so, despite the fact that it’s otherwise a pseudo-medieval society. It’s very much built on 80s tropes, full of taverns, bandits and “barbarians,” and despite bandits being apparently ubiquitous, nobody acts as if their world is unsafe (indeed, the scholars’ order is made up overwhelmingly of women who travel alone). We’re told in passing that all three of our leads have previously killed people in self-defense, which they all shrug off. No worries, y’know, anybody can best in physical combat an armed criminal with the element of surprise, and you’ll definitely have to because in this sort of book, everyone fights to the death. Even if they only wanted your wallet.

The violence: Hoo boy. Kirstein makes a couple of choices that in theory I admire: Rowan is an active rather than reactive character, driving the plot with her own quest for knowledge rather than being forced into it by a villain persecuting her for no fault of her own. Also, Kirstein doesn’t take the cop-out of pretending you can safely and reliably knock people unconscious with blows to the head. But combining this with an extremely casual attitude toward violence results in a protagonist who doesn’t think twice about outright murdering dozens of people to further her own curiosity-driven quest. She voluntarily puts herself in very high-risk situations, including infiltrating a fortress, and then has no qualms about killing basically everybody else in it so that she can get out. She even readily condones Bel’s murdering a 14-year-old girl they have previously met to avert the risk of the girl’s recognizing them in a different guise. (Rowan also condones Bel’s non-graphic but evidently disabling torture of a prisoner, though at least that’s taken somewhat seriously, while the rampant murdering is shrugged off entirely.) At this point, Rowan is deep into antihero territory to me if not an outright villain protagonist, but the book continues to treat her as a straightforward hero. I mean, they were all just NPCs, right?

Overall, definitely not the book I was hoping to read after seeing it frequently recommended in certain corners of the internet for its portrayal of female friendship. May be a worthwhile read for those who enjoy fantasy travelogues and classic tropes, and want to see women too get the opportunity to be murder hoboes, but much too dated and insufficiently thought-through for me. Ironic for a book that places so much emphasis on thinking things through.
Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,080 reviews108 followers
November 29, 2021
This is a fantasy with a twist, the first volume (published 1989) of the tetralogy. I read it as a part of monthly reading for November 2021 at SciFi and Fantasy Book Club group.

The story starts with a Steerswoman Rowan in an inn, attempting to collect information about possible sources of strange gems, some of which are found within trees. From what readers can guess they are some kind of meteorites, flying on a non-vertical trajectory from a specific point and hitting objects, like tree trunks. In the same inn there is a young barbarian bard woman – Outskirter Bel. Two women decide to travel together to find the source of the gems.

It sounds like a run of the mill fantasy plot, but the difference in details. Readers find out that Steerswomen are dedicated collectors of knowledge, who have to reply truthfully on any question asked (to the best of their knowledge) and expect the same in return. Moreover, they learnt to make deductions based on facts and suggest hypotheses, even quite fantastical – for example that the abovementioned gems are thrown by a giant far away. Outskirters live at the outskirts of the known world, with their herds of goats, which eat redgrass or blackgrass and create a fertile ground for green grass to follow. There are a lot of different beings, from goblins and gnomes, to fire-breathing dragons and sea monsters. Finally, there are secretive wizards, who don’t share information with steerswomen and who know a great deal, forming a power behind thrones in this world.

The story is quite fluid, the introduction of the world is largely without infodumps and pace is fine. There are several fights and deaths as well as some other not very pleasant situations but overall it is a light reading. In the group there are accolades for the quality of the story, but for me it was fine, not great and I don’t plan to continue the series.
Profile Image for Jessica Mae Stover.
Author 5 books165 followers
June 26, 2021
It is my intention that you read this series (as I write this, I'm on book four). That The Steerswoman series has flown under the radar for decades throughout its rollout, and yet is better than most fantasy published, is revealing, and a confirmation of the unjust bias and lack of support that too many authors face. We can argue to what degree, but it is.

I'm planning to write more about this series if/when I have the chance, and I'm reviewing books 1-4 here, which will lift the stars higher as book one is the least strong. As I write this there are still two books in the series to come. There are no spoilers below.

The first book will be pleasantly recognizable to fantasy fans and especially to D&D players and dungeon masters: it begins at an inn, strangers in the common room, a magical artifact causes two to travel together and soon a dangerous encounter binds them for a longer journey... . Different, however, is Kirstein's sociological thoughtfulness (finally a lack of the sexism and misogyny that pervades my favorite genre, including nearly all of the books on "NPR's Your Picks: Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books" list). In that way, this series is an oasis in a hostile desert. Also notable is Kirstein's commitment to skepticism via the scientific method. This is where Carl Sagan's readers, and fans Star Trek's TNG-Picard era, will find something to sink their teeth into. The second book takes us into very fresh ground: it's full of interesting choices and reminds me of beloved anthro-socio TNG investigatory, travelogue episodes such as Darmok. The second half of the third book is also remarkable, and the author is not afraid to let time pass between novels and take us to new places with new characters. I know from my own work how much more time and effort is required in starting in an entirely new location vs returning to the same location book after book. It's still difficult, but adds less difficulty, to return to Hogwarts year after year. The amount of attention spent on creating a sense of place and ecology in book two is simply delicious, and once the setup was achieved, I had a hard time putting it down.

Kirstein shows she is thinking about all of us as she writes: there is an advanced sense of inclusiveness and equality in these novels, and that means you will find yourself in the peoples who inhabit these lands, and when you do, you will be equal.

The only deep criticism I have for this series is in regard to the torture that appears in book one: there are zero consequences and there is too much hypocrisy when the protagonists torture a captive. I left the first book disliking them very much (and fascinated by that unintended side effect), yet I also left wanting to read more to see if there would be blowback for torture and escalated, armed attacks, and therefore comment. There was not, and that was a mistake. I've written about how Octavia Butler handled something similar. But I don't want to see women, and SF/F authors who actually go out of their way to otherwise apply near-perfect social science to their texts, held to higher standard here: your favorite fantasy book likely contains casual torture and other scenes that are as dangerous and appalling, and (this scares me about us as Americans) you likely had no problem with it. I grew up the same way -- it was normalized in media. And so it came to pass that when America entered a dark mood after a terrible attack, torture and other horrors did not receive a reaction from the citizenry until it was far too late. This is the consequence of normalization via repetition: passive permissiveness. Book one is not so casual about torture as other fantasy works, yet still normalizes its application. I do regard this as a serious problem in fiction across media, most of which at this point has been written by men. Have you noticed how much casual torture appears in your favorite shows or books? How many seasons of 24 have you enjoyed without hesitation? Casual torture is a dealbreaker for me, but this series is handled so well afterward and otherwise, that I went on, and am glad that I did. I hope you will think about and confront these ideas when you read The Steerswoman all the way through, too. As I said in the beginning: It is my intention that you read this series.

Thank you to my Patrons for facilitating this review and supporting my SFF writing: Patreon.com/JSto
Profile Image for Jess.
290 reviews52 followers
September 14, 2021
I really, really enjoyed this. And it is SO hard to believe it was published in 1989! In many ways, it's a fun fantasy romp, but it nevertheless tackles some bigger questions that kept reminding me (surprisingly) of Piranesi. It's much, much more lighthearted than that book--please don't expect that level of nuance and literary heft here--but it similarly poses the beginnings of a hefty question about knowledge for the sake of delighting in (and sharing) knowledge versus knowledge for power's sake (and, from a more sympathetic angle, to protect people from the worst of what dangerous knowledge can do).

There were a few plot points / character behaviors that I thought were a little too easy and convenient in service of the plot, a few things that were explained just a little past what I would have rather had left to the reader to piece together, but... it was lovely. I liked the main characters tremendously. And in terms of not having gender quackery and essentialism going on, omg was it several decades ahead of its time. Still is, frankly. It is a book that is subversive of power structures in many of my favorite ways and is also an awful lot of fun.

Profile Image for Hank.
796 reviews73 followers
November 21, 2021
The more I think about this book the better it gets so the 4.5 stars gets rounded up. This one is better read with as little pre-knowledge as possible so I will try very hard not to spoil it.

The small reveals and clues Kirstein leaves throughout are amazing, not so opaque that you miss them completely yet just vague enough to get the brain working. I found the two main character interaction pleasingly nuanced and "real" feeling.

Recommended to just about everyone and I will start the next as soon as possible.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
428 reviews184 followers
October 28, 2022
Eh. Not a fan of either physics or torture. I can appreciate some of what this book was trying to do, but it took me weeks to finish and routinely lost out to Laws and Regulations of Pesticide Usage in California, riveting read that it is. The first half was fine in a peripatetic, gently philosophical way with some unexpected murders, and then my interest waned, like the parabola formed by a projectile succumbing to the pull of gravity (9.8 meters / seconds squared - see, I remember something from physics).

I'd say 'review to come,' but I'd probably be lying.
Profile Image for Rachel Neumeier.
Author 44 books485 followers
June 14, 2016
The characters: Well-drawn. Rowan, Bel, and Willam are all quite appealing in their different ways. Rowan’s observation skills and general perceptiveness are beautifully handled throughout, and believable, none of that too-good-to-be-true Sherlock Holmes magic. The whole concept of the steerswomen was delightful, and that, too, was handled in a believable way – pretty tricky for such an idealized lifestyle. I loved the bit where all the steerswomen (and steersmen) gave us some insight about how they look at the world while everyone worked on coming up with a disguise for Rowan. Look at this woman: what story would you believe about her?

I’m not always a fan of the barbarian swordsman type – in this case swordswoman – but I enjoyed Bel and the way her casual attitude toward killing people merged seamlessly with the her general good cheer. And she’s a good foil for Rowan, as her general ignorance of the mainstream culture provides a useful way to seamlessly explain important details.

And I admit to being particularly charmed by Will. There’s something about his fourteen-year-old earnest goodheartedness combined with a natural bent toward figuring things out. Which leads me to . . .

The scientific method in fantasy! Whoa, that’s so different! But here’s Will, changing just one thing at a time as he figures out how to make really quite powerful explosives. Go, Will! He would get along *so well* with Tehre from The Land of Burning Sands, wouldn’t he? Shoot, the two of them together would probably develop quite a theory of natural science, possibly before Will was old enough to shave.

Will might be thinking of his explosives as magic, but his attitude is all science. I was sure we would get a chance to see him use his “charms” sometime in the book, and wow, did we ever. Boom! No wonder he developed such careful methods of handling his pack. And of course Will’s explosives have to raise the question of what exactly magic *is* in this world – is it *all* science, really? It’s hard to see those little fire dragon things as anything based on science, so maybe there’s real magic as well as interesting secret technology and undiscovered science? I look forward to finding out.

We get a lot more of the science and – even better – the scientific mindset from Rowan. I loved her carefully drawing precise graphs as she figured out that in theory it might be possible to throw something so hard it would never fall back to earth! Wow. Next thing you know she’ll take over from Isaac Newton, describe the laws of planetary motion, and invent Calculus.

The world: So, about those laws of planetary motion . . . I wonder what happened to the moon? No moon! It disappeared ages ago. What a great detail to work so casually into conversation. Also, if you’d read this book, did you notice that stuff about green grass as opposed to red grass and black grass – and special goats that can eat the inedible kinds of grass, thus making life possible in marginal regions? It’s so cool the way the habitable zone is obviously creeping outward, as essentially terraforming must be happening around the edges of settled land. None of this is explicitly described or explained, but it’s obvious if you’re paying attention.

Really, this is an excellent book for looking at how to integrate worldbuilding and backstory without ever resorting to an infodump. Honestly, an infodumpy prologue would just ruin this book completely. Instead Kirstein does an outstanding job of setting her story in a coherent world without ever explaining much at all, leaving it to the reader to try to figure out — rationally! — the mysteries of the world. Very nice job here, and so many hooks planted for the future. What could the guidestars actually be, and what is their actual purpose? What in the world is the wizards’ power actually based on, what are they doing, what’s the scary senior wizard up to? What’s up with this obviously quite hostile environment beyond the settled area? Lots of questions.

The plotting: Well put together. Seldom truly unpredictable . . . I mean, come on, like we weren’t going to see Will’s explosives used, right? But if the broad plot is predictable, the details are much less so. Plus the actual storytelling makes it a real pleasure to see how Kirstein works all those details out.

The upshot: Yeah, I grabbed the three sequels immediately.
Profile Image for Jan.
882 reviews170 followers
July 22, 2021
4 to 4.5 stars. This book was published in 1989. A sci-fi fantasy crossover series. I'd never heard of the books before, until just recently.

Really enjoyed this very engaging read. A very appealing fantasy world, with likeable and interesting characters. Elements of technology that readers can clearly see are science-based rather than the "magic" the general populace (in the book) believes them to be puts this book into the sci-fi genre as well as fantasy. Clearly more will be revealed about this in other books of the series.

It's mostly a road-trip book, with a different take from many other books of its ilk, in that the two main protagonists are women - competent, brave, clever women with independence and integrity. I really enjoyed this aspect of the book. I also liked that the book does not disrespect or downplay men and their qualities - it's just that men and women are pretty much seen as equally capable. It makes such a refreshing change to read a book like this. In this aspect, the book was ahead of its time, I think.

A fun and intriguing adventure-mystery-fantasy-sci-fi read. It kept my interest the whole way through. There was a bit of violence (mostly off page) that made me uncomfortable, but otherwise I highly recommend. I will definitely read the others in the series.
Profile Image for Beth.
917 reviews104 followers
November 19, 2021
I'm going to participate in a discussion about this book in a couple of days, so I'll keep my review short. Saying a whole lot about it could lessen some of the fun for another reader, since mystery and discovery are crucial elements of the book, so that's probably just as well.

I appreciate how The Steerswoman respects the intelligence of both its reader and its characters, and acknowledges that there are different ways of learning, that everyone has their own strength and canniness. There are scenes here and there that might not sit well with a reader in the 2020s, but those are relatively minor concerns in a book with such appealing characters and an enjoyable puzzle of a story.

I downgrade it slightly because it only rarely had emotional impact. That's just a personal preference, though. Three and a half stars, rounded up.
Profile Image for Phil.
1,625 reviews104 followers
February 21, 2022
This was something of a surprise as I have had this book in my shelves for ages; if I knew how good it was I would have read it much sooner! Rowan, our main protagonist, is a steerswoman, which is something like a Druid. She travels the world collecting and passing on knowledge, freely answering any question about anything as long as she can ask questions back. Along in her travels, she finds a strange jewel and tries to find out more about it; this is where the book begins.

The world is quasifeudal, with lords and such, but also divided among various wizards, who perform things like weather forecasts and control dragons. Rowan, assisted by a 'barbarian' outskirter named Bel, travel back to home base (the 'archives') to report about the jewel, only to find out that they are being hunted by wizards. Once maybe chance, but a dragon attack beginning in their hotel room on the road is pushing coincidence a bit far...

Kirstein, despite some rather stop and go pacing issues, moves the story along nicely. What started out as a fairly 'boilerplate' fantasy quickly morphs into something of a mystery novel. Why do the wizards want Rowan dead because she is looking into a strange jewel? Kirstein gives us several hints along the way that the wizards actually control some tech like electricity and have 'instantaneous' communication, leading the reader to connect the dots. Are the wizards some relics of a prior civilization? Or, are the humans here really part of a interstellar colonization mission that went terribly wrong? Part of the world, the 'low lands' is much like Earth, but the outskirts are only populated by 'barbarians' who raise goats; just about the only animal that can eat the 'red and black grass' and live...

While this is really a plot driven novel, Kirstein does not shirk from developing some fun characters. Rowan the Steerswoman is fun, possessing a curiosity about the world (and trying to understand it). Bel, the 'barbarian' outlander, comes off a little stereotypical at first, but she is more than just a sword carrier, and her and Rowan develop a strange, stressful at times, relationship that moves the plot along nicely.

All in all, this is a real genre bender that gives many hints about where the series will go next. Is this a fantasy, mystery, a science fiction adventure? Well, perhaps a little of all the above. The lack of info dumps coupled with deft world building really sets this book apart from the pack. 4 solid stars!!
Profile Image for Mel.
236 reviews
September 15, 2022
Rosemary Kirstein gifted my brain a special kind of catnip I didn't even know I needed. One of Spatial Integrity. Her world has fixed reference points I can rely on and set my inner compass to. You can walk around in this space, and know if the sun will be in your eyes.

Alas, this series is in the realm of so-huge-I-can't-review-it. Perhaps one day I will try to put words to the unique space it occupies for me. Until then, RTC in perpetuity.
Profile Image for Beige .
246 reviews81 followers
August 2, 2021
A true genre mashup. It reads like fantasy but its protagonist, 'a steerswoman', is what we'd call as a scientist in our own world. The slow reveal of the magic?/science? makes for a great mystery.

Kirstein set out to flip the typical fantasy tropes and as a result, this 1989 entry has aged incredibly well. It really is a gem (pun intended).

Thanks to Ryan for recommending we read this as a group.

Profile Image for Mareike.
Author 4 books56 followers
November 17, 2021
This was a solid 4 star read until the last few chapters, which definitely kicked my rating up to the full 5 stars.

I really enjoyed the worldbuilding and the characters in this novel.

The plot was very well done, with good pacing that moved smoothly and never felt too hurried. And Kirstein masterfully revealed more and more of the world.

I'm definitely going to continue this series.

I still really enjoyed this the second time around. I still really like the characters and the way the plot and the world unfold. Knowing the other books in the series, too, it was particularly interesting to see which seeds for later plot developments were already dropped in this book.
Profile Image for Mike.
389 reviews94 followers
April 14, 2018
This was very interesting. I've always said that sci-fi and fantasy are a spectrum, rather than different genres. I've read hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi. I've read fantasy disguised as sci-fi (Star Wars with its space wizards), sci-fi disguised as fantasy (Pern with its genetically engineer dragons), and works that are squarely in the middle (Dune).

But this is the first book I've read that's not only sci-fi, but diamond-hard sci-fi, and so thoroughly disguised as a fantasy story it took me half the book to figure it out.

It drags a bit in places, and the protagonist has some Mary Sue-ish tendencies, but this was on the whole excellent. Looking forward to the rest of the series.
Profile Image for R.C..
354 reviews7 followers
May 22, 2014
This book was excellent. Hands-down the best thing I've read in a long time. An original, interesting plot, a huge mystery, and excellent characters. Character building, character interactions, just...everything. Rowan and Bel are both intelligent, capable women, and they plunge into the mystery of the "jewels" with courage, intelligence, and logic rather than the usual sword-swinging approach. Rowan is ferociously smart and well-educated, and it is so, so wonderful to see that not just told but SHOWN. Rowan's main weapon is her MIND for most of the way through this conflict, with physical force only used as a last resort. It's wonderful to see that approach used as the theme for this entire series. No grand war, no storming the castle, merely a woman finding out what others have been hiding for the sake of KNOWING. Her friend Bel is also an incredibly fun character, and the two of them complement each other admirably, both confident in their strengths and accepting of each others' limitations.

I also loved how Kirstein constructs the main mystery of the series: who are the wizards, what is magic, what are the Guidestars, and what is the nature of the world? As a reader, I found it very fun to try to put all the pieces together before Rowan did through sheer logic.
Profile Image for Margaret.
1,029 reviews331 followers
June 2, 2010
(As is my wont with series, this is essentially a review of all the books, four to date.)

Rowan is a Steerswoman, one of an order of people (mostly women) who are dedicated to seeking, sharing, and storing information. She has become interested in some mysterious jewels and joins up with Bel, a warrior woman from the land's outskirts, to search for their origin, which proves to be tied up with the powerful, enigmatic wizards. Suddenly, Rowan and Bel are involved in something much bigger than they expected, with enormous implications for the Steerswomen and for everyone in their world.

Steerswoman is now my dream job (no surprise, right?), and I just loved Rowan's common sense and intelligence and ability to observe and apply her observations. I loved Bel, too, and particularly the second book, in which the two of them travel to the outskirts and Rowan learns more about Bel's society.

Really, I thought these were so good that I can't really come up with anything more articulate about them; if you like speculative fiction and haven't read them, you really should. I know Kirstein is working on the next book, and it can't come too soon for me. (I think there are supposed to be at least two or three more?)
Profile Image for Kevin.
1,506 reviews34 followers
November 29, 2021
The Steerswoman was not what I expected, from the old paperback cover, I thought it'd be a D&D type adventure. I also didn't expect a 1989 Fantasy to have such a capable cast of women, at a time when most D&D parties had at most one woman usually cast as a healer.

I love the relationship between Bel and Rowan,

The worldbuilding and the inclusion of a map really added to the overall reading experience.

I'm really glad that I joined the SciFi and Fantasy Book Club group as I'd never heard of this series before and now I can't wait to continue with the next book.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,009 followers
April 26, 2020
The Steerswoman is the first book of a series, focusing on the explorations of a steerswoman. The steerswomen seek after knowledge wherever they go: learning about local customs, drawing maps, and passing on their knowledge. If a steerswoman asks you a question, you must answer; if you do not, they will place you under a ban, and no steerswoman will ever answer your questions again. Rowan has been a steerswoman long enough that it's baked into her through and through, and she loves her work -- even as it begins to get her into trouble, even though she doesn't understand why.

This is a book you need to have patience with, because the details come to the reader slowly. I really enjoyed reading it at the same time as my wife and fitting together what we'd noticed (example: the gum-soled shoes that sailors and steerswomen wear!) but it's still a little frustrating to watch Rowan's slow progress. Readers have a bit of an advantage on Rowan, though, so it's also fun to try to be ahead and figure out where things are going.

Rowan isn't the only main character; the other is Bel, an Outskirter warrior who upends some of Rowan's assumptions as she comes along for the ride. They complement each other well, and it's fun to watch them play off each other. I wish we had more information about Bel and her motivations, though; I don't doubt her interest in helping Rowan, but she's gone to a lot of effort by now, and some of it before she really got to know Rowan. I'm hoping for more about her in the next book! (Which, since it's called The Outskirter's Secret, I suspect is exactly what will be served up.)
Profile Image for Kristin B. Bodreau.
285 reviews51 followers
November 20, 2021
Objectively I really appreciate this book. Particularly for the timeframe it was written in. Having a strong and intelligent woman working her way through the world gathering and spreading knowledge. I’m in love with the concept of learning and the scientific and methodical approach to solving problems. The idea of Steerswomen is spectacular.

Bel, Rowan and Willam were all excellent three dimensional characters. They each have strengths that support each other and the advancement of the story.

Where this fell apart for me was the pacing. Some parts seemed to last forever, while others sprinted ahead. I also struggled with understanding some of the side characters and how they fit in.

Generally when deciding on a star rating I just go with overall gut instinct on how I felt when I finished the book. This was good, and had a lot of fabulous ideas, world-building and characterization. But I just wasn’t captivated. Very glad I read it, but not rushing to find the next installment. Which puts it at a solid three for me.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
9,331 reviews399 followers
July 7, 2021
Trying again because Ryan. ;)
And WotF group.
ebook from overdrive/libby via okc; sequels also avl. there
Thank you, Ryan! I will read book two asap.

I love the details. Bel's piebald cloak. Red vs. Blue not really signifying deep values. Learning the trick to avoid seasickness (knees loose, head centered over torso, look at the oncoming waves). The wizards secrecy vs. the steerswomen's desire to add to the world's knowledge. The glimpses of 'science' in what is really still a fantasy novel .

I do have a bit of trouble with some of the ideas. The idea of respecting the people, even if you have no respect for their religion is great, but otoh there's an awful lot of bloodshed, ?
Profile Image for David.
290 reviews
March 31, 2014
I read this because it was recommended, by an author I respect, as one of the classics of fantasy writing. Ugh. Blessedly short at 264 pages.

I think this book is what happens when an author is overly concerned with character development. The reader learns every detail of the personalities of the main characters, and meanwhile: "Will something please happen?" Plot movement? - not so much.

Worldbuilding?- not so much. The same lead character who (in an age with medieval technology) is working out the equations for satellites, is somehow unconcerned that her entire known world is about the size of three counties. As someone who is presented with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, did she ever wonder "What's on the other side of the inland sea? What's past the bogs? What's past the desert known as the Outskirts?" Apparently not.
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