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The Steerswoman (Steerswoman Series) (Volume 1) Paperback – August 18, 2017
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This novel really surprised me. I don't gravitate to those epic novels that require a map to assist the reader. I have an old set of the Lord of The Rings hard bound 1965 (I was likely still in high school) that came with a foldout map in the back cover. I've looked at that map only once and that was recently and when I read the books long ago I avoided the map like a plague. Since then and possibly partly because I struggled reading TLOTR, I shy away from epic books with maps. I'm glad I made an exception for this one.
Maps are essential to this book in that the main character, a Steerswoman, helps make maps and explores territories to update and expand maps. This is in a world where the moon has somehow met with a catastrophe that might have led to mankind taking a few steps back in development and knowledge. All people living at this time only know the moon like a myth, a tale passed down, none have ever seen it. Now the world is dominated by wizards whose magic help keep some perceived dangers at bay. Those include beings referred to as Gnomes, Dragons, and demons to name a few. There are inner land people and outskirt people. Inland people were merchants and educated people where the outskirters were considered barbarians and there are some beyond the outskirts who are considered less than that. In the skies are the two Guidestars that the Steerswoman use to help navigate although they also use the old system of navigation by stars. They seem aware that the Guidestars were placed there and they believe the wizards are responsible.
Rowan, the Steerswoman, as with every steerswoman collects information and remembers everything so that she can use the information to exchange for information. A steersman or woman is obligated to answer questions asked of them and to be truthful within the scope of their knowledge. In return they are allowed to ask questions of others and they live under a rule to always answer questions; unless someone denies to give them information when they ask them questions. When someone deliberately withholds information they and everyone else affiliated with them are placed on ban and the steerswoman no longer is obligated to answer their questions. This sets both a major key in the world and the major key that stands as an asset and a struggle that Rowan will have to go through in the novel.
When the novel opens we catch Rowan while she's actively pursuing her hobby. She has a gemstone that has been mysteriously polished and flattened and encased in a ring of metal, which she has now found is not a unique piece; though has still defied her efforts to find it's origin. She's investigating a chunk of wood that contains more of the same gems. They all seem to have been worked with fine tools and metal work that defies current technology. While vying for a chance to borrow the piece she encounters an Outskirter who has a belt made from the same gems. This and information obtained conversing with the Outskirter lead her to form an alliance with Bel, the Outskirter, and the two begin to travel together. In their travel Rowan finds Bel to be better educated than she would have believed.
When they are set upon by one of the red wizards men, Rowan becomes suspicious and when later dragons that should have been under another wizards control attack them, she begins to believe that it might involve her hobby. But she's unsure if her friends and mentors at the archive will sanction her further pursuit of that hobby. But when it becomes apparent that she's in danger and there are wizards watching the archive, the free spirit of the organization of steerswomen almost demands that Rowan continue to find answers. And so begins the unlikely journey of the Steerswoman and the Outskirter; soon to be joined by the boy who would be a wizard.
If you’re a reader who likes to get all the answers at the end of the novel, this one might not be for you. But if you are like me and don't look at the novel as having a swift start point and a solid end point; but rather view it as a matter of the journey to get from one to the other; then there is plenty to whet the appetite.
This is the story of a steerswoman trying to be something she isn't in order to survive and discovering that it makes her somewhat less and she can't tolerate that. And Rowan discovers that the differences she perceived in other people are not quite as disparate as thought in some ways and yet are still widely different in ways she would never expect.
The world that Rosemary Kirstein has built is a marvelous tapestry that is only overshadowed by the rich depth of her characters.
In a world that reminds one of Clark's third law:: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Only it's been twisted in that it’s possibly older technology that few if any fully understand; but that has yet to be resolved in some future novel in this series.
Excellent Science Fiction Fantasy in a gritty and sometimes unforgiving world with characters that come to life.
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.
The omnidisciplinary applied scholarship of Rowan (and the steerswomen in general) combines some of the capability of a broader-minded Sherlock Holmes with a wonderful exploratory curiosity.
The setting has some very interesting elements, which I won't spoil, for Rowan to pit that curiosity against. In many cases, the reader has a good chance to get out ahead of her in puzzling them out, not because she is slow or because we are privy to information in the book that she is not, but by certain benefits of our modern perspective. Which is quite a bit of fun, as new bits keep revealing different things to steerswoman and reader.
These setting elements (about which I will continue to be vague) have some problems, though. There are certain places where the book seems to fall down on science which appears to be meant to be accurate. It's a bit glaring that the steerswomen are knowledgeable about ballistics but seem to have no notion of air resistance, and certain properties of gum-soled boots are rather unlikely, for example.
Finally, the book seems to offer a somewhat surprisingly limited emotional perspective. I suspect this may be an element of Rowan's characterization, rather than a fault of the writing, but it can be surprising. In particular at certain points Rowan demonstrates shocking degrees of cold-bloodedness, of which the text seems to take no notice at all.