Book: The Steerswoman's Road by Rosemary Kirstein

Reasonably good fantasy novel

Rosemary Kirstein
The Steerswoman's Road
Random House, 2003
ISBN: 0-345-46105-3
653 pages

A steerswoman deals in truth. Anyone may ask a steerswoman any question and she will reply to the best of her knowledge. In return, a person must answer any question a steerswoman asks to the best of their knowledge. A person may refuse to answer, but then no steerswoman will answer that person's questions ever again. Wizards never answer and so fall under the steerswoman's ban, but they're a deliberately close-mouthed lot.

Since steerswomen are pretty rare and a steerswoman's answers are more valuable to any individual than their answers could be to her, steerswomen are rarely charged for their modest needs for food and lodging as they travel to learn new things. (There are a few steersmen, but it is overwhelmingly women who feel called to the profession.) Rowan is one such steerswoman and she has become interested in the origins of a particular sort of gem that's reasonably rare but isn't accorded any special value. As she travels, Rowan falls into the company of Bel, a woman who's an outskirter. Outskirters live on the edge of the lands occupied by the dominant culture of the novel's world (a pretty standard fantasy-novel late-medieval culture). Most "inner-landers" consider Bel a barbarian, but her people are goat-herders and in fact their culture is complex. It would need to be for them to survive in the unforgiving outskirts.

Rowan's skills and Bel's are complementary and that turns out to be a good thing when it seems that Rowan's inquiries about the gems have attracted the unwelcome attention of a wizard. That's a pretty good premise for a fantasy novel, if you ask me.

The volume The Steerswoman's Road contains the first two books of what seems intended to become a longish series of novels (they were originally published as The Steerswoman in 1989 and The Outskirter's Secret in 1992). That means that little of substance is resolved by the volume's end and that there's a bit of repetition in the beginning of the second book in the volume. Those things aren't in themselves reasons not to like the book. What did bother me some is that the book reads as though the author made the story up as she went along and did so pretty casually. A book does not need to be tightly plotted in order to be good. But if a book's plot wanders here and there, the narration still needs discipline. And that's somewhat lacking here. Take, for example:

    It was not her being a steerswoman that made her want
    to know; she had become a steerswoman because of
    her own need, the need to know and understand. And at
    this moment, she merely wished, for herself, to be aware,
    and could not bear the thought of being otherwise.
    (p. 632)

That might be a good and useful piece of characterization at the beginning of the first book. At a stretch, it might be good at the beginning of the second. Coming, as it does, a few pages before the end of the second one, it grates. If Ms Kirstein hasn't made her reader understand her character's motivations by then, it's too late. Alas, too much of the book is like that. Interesting characters come and go. There are longish stretches in which relatively little happens and then the plot is moved forward by means of talky exposition. Rowan reasons now one way and now another. To be somewhat old-fashioned, I'd say that the book is a bit short on dramatic unity. I get the impression that the author had only a few general ideas and a small amount of the plot in mind at any given moment that she was telling the story.

I wish that I could say that the places that Ms Kirstein's story goes are interesting enough to make up for those faults. They're not, quite, for me.

Minor spoiler follows:

I'm no astronomer, but as far as I can tell, for a geosynchronous satellite over an Earth-like planet to be readily visible to the naked eye at night, it would need to be a good deal larger than a big house. It seems that something more on the order of a mile in diameter would be necessary.

Posted: Mon - March 30, 2009 at 07:33 PM   Main   Category: