The Steerswoman
April 5, 2023 5:39 AM - Subscribe

Steerswomen, and a very few Steersmen, are members of an order dedicated to discovering and disseminating knowledge. Although they are foremost navigators of the high seas, Steerswomen are also explorers and cartographers upon land as well as sea. With one exception, they are pledged to always answer any question put to them with as truthful a response as is possible within their own limitations. However, they also require anyone of whom they ask questions to respond in the same manner, upon penalty of the Steerswomen's ban; those under the ban do not receive answers from the steerswomen.

In this novel, Rowan is a Steerswoman who is interested in some strange jewels which have been found distributed in an unusual pattern. These jewels are made of strange materials bonded onto metal. Some think that such jewels are magically produced.
posted by Literaryhero (13 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Decided to revisit this one and was surprised to see it hadn't been posted to Fanfare yet. It's been years, but I recall this novel (and the series as a whole) as among the best I've ever read. I'll follow up as I work through it again on a re-read.
posted by Literaryhero at 5:40 AM on April 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

If anyone has not read this yet, I do not wish to set your expectations so high that you will find it a letdown, so I will simply say that it is one of the best books ever written.
posted by kyrademon at 8:23 AM on April 5, 2023 [7 favorites]

This whole series is bizarre in that it seems like they should be way more famous. Imagine some local band released a series of classic rock albums in the mid 2000s that were as good as anything released in the late 60s, but the albums are still only available as 320 mp3s, or something.

I think part of the reason is that these books are hard to recommend without spoiling the surprise about what makes them special. "It's the best thing ever but go in blind" is, at the end of the day, an easy recommendation to ignore, and it's hard to say more than that about these books.
posted by Rinku at 9:05 AM on April 5, 2023 [2 favorites]

This has been on my "To Look Into" pile for quite some time, need to move it up a few notches.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 10:38 AM on April 5, 2023 [1 favorite]

I read this some years ago after having read several reviews/comments like this saying that is was excellent and found it pretty underwhelming. (It doesn't help that I kinda hate the kind of big twist that's central to the book.) However, so many people whose opinions I trust love it that I feel certain I must have missed something and feel like I should revisit it.

Sincerely, I would love to read something from those of you who loved about why - reading things like that sometimes helps me reconsider a work I've previously disliked. Why is this one of the best books ever written? What exactly do you like so much? I ask this not to bring down the thread but because I'd honestly love to see people wax poetic about this book whose appeal I don't really understand.
posted by darchildre at 3:54 PM on April 5, 2023 [2 favorites]

What exactly do you like so much?

So it has been years since I have read the books, and I am only a few pages in on my re-read, but there are two main things that I liked. First is the level of competency of Rowan, who is a scientist in a world that respects scientists, but she also basically creates her own framework for solving a mystery that she has no tools to begin understanding. The second part builds on that and is basically that what you refer to as the 'big twist' isn't really a surprise. There is a long, steady burn that builds up to the understanding of what the world is and I find it really satisfying.

Like back in the 90s people oohed and aahed over The Usual Suspects because of its 'twist' ending and how all the pieces fit together, but in fact there is no way you could have figured out the movie without the final montage that puts it all together. In The Steerswoman, on the other hand, there is a very deliberate way that the clues are shown that takes the reader step-by-step through the process alongside Rowan. I think that's really cool.

Also, this book is old and it was one of, if not the first, book that I read that had women protagonists that weren't stereotypes. That's less an issue now, but up until recently, it was a big deal.
posted by Literaryhero at 4:29 PM on April 5, 2023 [10 favorites]

I agree with Literaryhero and wanted to expand on those ideas. Even today, books with mature female protagonists, with a mature female companion (friend, not romantic) are very rare. And although Rowan is highly intelligent, competent, inquisitive, and intensely kind, all extremely valuable qualities, she is also faced with danger, physical and mental challenges, and loss. Also, the world building is really satisfying with realistic depth.
posted by Illusory contour at 7:08 PM on April 5, 2023 [4 favorites]

I'll say another thing, which is that, eventually, the reader and the characters in the story are operating at different levels of contextual understanding of what's going on, but there's no slack or sense of rote expectation to the story because of that, in a way that's uncommon. The story of the characters trying to figure out their world is interesting, and the story that we as the reader are piecing together about the state of their world and how it got that way is also interesting. The reader knows more about what's going on, but still has no idea what's going to happen. Once you start to understand this book's twist, it's like you go through a curtain into a different story -- but, critically, I think, what's on the other side of that curtain is compelling and mysterious. These books are a little bit like chamber music, in that the pleasure is in the carefulness of all the detail and the finesse with which the whole thing is pulled off.
posted by Rinku at 7:22 PM on April 5, 2023 [4 favorites]

Here's what Jo Walton wrote about the series.

I just wish Ms. Kirstein whatever good fortune she needs to finish the series, because I want to know how things turn out.
posted by cheshyre at 10:15 AM on April 6, 2023 [2 favorites]

It's been a while since I read this, but I remember how refreshing it was to have a female fantasy character go about her business, traveling the world, with no threat of rape. (Such a small thing to ask of my entertainment. And yet.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:33 PM on April 9, 2023 [1 favorite]

Why is this one of the best books ever written? What exactly do you like so much?

I dunno that I would necessarily stick it in my personal "best books ever written" pile, but I would certainly say it falls under the "underappreciated possible classics" category (as per comments in this FPP - Five (SFF) Authors We Wish Had Written More.) As far as I can tell, the books had a first run of publication by Del Rey way back in 1989, but as of now are being self-published, with Kirstein having regained her rights, and there was a long stretch when they simply weren't available as current printings.

As of this moment I'm 100 or so pages into the second book, (The Outskirter's Secret), and I definitely wouldn't have finished this first book and moved on to the next if I didn't like the main characters and the world building. The Wikipedia page on the book quotes a review - "a lovely example of an epic story driven by brains over brawn, and wit over magical destiny" - that I think sums up the appeal very nicely. The protagonists are intelligent and curious and experts in their particular fields (although it's not "competence porn" - Rowan and Bel regularly run up against their own limitations of knowledge and experience and have to reexamine and reassess their worldviews), the plot is engaging and not overly complex, the prose is "invisible" in a good way, the pacing is good, and the world they live in is well-constructed, plausible, and feels "lived in."

And of course on top of that the protagonists are women - as people have pointed out, even today it's still all too rare to have women as "regular people with skills going on fantasy adventures", and not be, like, obsessed with their own boobs, or under constant threat of SA, or focused largely on romance and which hunk they're gonna fuck/marry/kill. These novels must have been jaw-dropping back in 1989.

spoiling the surprise

the kind of big twist that's central to the book

Hmmmm . . . Well, assuming we're all talking about the same thing, I'm with others in my opinion that there really isn't a "twist" or surprise. We the readers are regularly being given clues about what's going on, and of course they mean something different to us than to the characters. (And I'd note that at the point I'm at in the second book the "twist", such as it is, still hasn't been revealed to the characters.) So I wouldn't call this a twist, especially in this book, and the scenario I think we're talking about was already pretty well-trod territory in SF/F when these books arrived, so not so much of a surprise to folks who have already read within the genres.

Just in case anyone's extra-leery of "spoilers", though, more thoughts on this hidden below:

Right, so I'm figuring the "twist" or surprise is that the world of The Steerswoman is some kind of far-future post-apocalyptic/post-civilization-collapse version of earth, where "magic" is really just technology, and the "magicians" are those who have retained some level of knowledge and control over it. And otherwise the rest of humanity has slowly recovered to reach a sort of semi-feudal agrarian civilization.

We the readers are definitely given clues to this - Will's explosion/fire "magic" is very clearly some version of gunpowder, and it's pretty obviously so almost from when it's first introduced; Rowan finds the things that are clearly insulated copper wires; and her semi-idle thought experiments about orbital mechanics ("how tall would a giant have to be and how hard would they have to throw something in order for it to never come back down to earth?") lead us to the conclusion that the Guidestars are some kind of artificial satellite in geosynchronous orbit, and thus once she reasons out that the "crystals" that kicked this whole thing off are pieces of a fallen Guidestar it follows that these crystals are some kind of ancient manmade materials. Plus her various conversations with the wizards Dree, Shammer, and Corvus drop more hints.

But since Rowan and Bel (and most of the rest of the folks in their world, barring maybe the wizards) don't (yet) know that "magic" = ancient technology, I don't think it's really . . . fair? . . . to call this a twist or surprise. There's no moment of sudden revelation for Rowan and Bel, the various regular clues that this is the case are meant for the reader as part of the world building, not as a surprise for the characters. If you as the reader had a sort of "light bulb" moment when you added up the clues, it might have been a surprise to you, but I still wouldn't see that as a twist, since the clues are dropped throughout the book and not suddenly and directly stated.

And as I mentioned, by the time these novels came out in the late 80's setting an SF/F story in a post-collapse world where the characters are using or interacting with poorly-understood or mysterious ancient technology was far from unusual. Off the top of my head, there's Sterling Lanier's Hero's Journey (1973), and Gene Wolfe's tetralogy Book of the New Sun (1980-83), and Jack Vance's Dying Earth series (first collection published 1950). Plus I'm sure a bunch of other novels or stories I can't exactly recall at the moment. So yeah, Kirstein's world building is within an established SF/F trope, and I doubt was intended as much of a surprise for the reader.

posted by soundguy99 at 8:00 PM on April 15, 2023

Sometimes you read a book for the characters, or for the plot, or the dialogue, or for the ideas, or the world-building, or the humor, even if the other aspects aren't great.

This book, and the series of books it starts, is consistently good in all aspects. And the concept of steerswoman, a group of people with a social contract based on asking and answering questions to help share knowledge, is wonderful.
posted by Chrysopoeia at 2:52 PM on July 18, 2023

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