I went to the trouble of getting this one through inter-library loan and then discovered that my library owns a omnibus edition of the first two books! I guess I shouldn’t feel too badly, since the ILL folks didn’t catch it either. Anyway, I’m still going to count it for my ILL reading challenge.
This is a backlist title; it was published in 1989, although the series is still ongoing. I hadn’t heard of it before last year, though, when Jenny mentioned it on her blog. And really you should just go read what she says, because it’s great.
Perhaps the biggest draw for me was the concept of steerswomen, which as far as I know is a completely unique one. It’s a kind of order, mostly female with a few exceptions, whose devotion and power lie in information, knowledge. As such, there are probably inevitable comparisons to librarians, which I think are warranted and I liked what Jenny says about how thoughtful and unromanticized this aspect is. However, steerswomen have a kind of cultural currency that doesn’t quite line up with the real world. I also liked the way the idea of steerswomen gives power to a group that’s largely female without making the society as a whole free from issues.
But it’s worth noting that there are several powerful female characters. Rowan, the titular Steerswoman, and the rest of her colleagues. But also Bel, the Outskirter bodyguard, and even Dhree, a wizard encountered later in the book. They’re all powerful in different ways; they have different personalities, backgrounds, desires. Kirstein does a marvelous job of showing a world where different ways of being are generally accepted (Bel, for instance, is judged more because she is an Outskirter than because she’s a female warrior). There are significant male characters in the story, but Rowan and Bel are the pair at the heart of it.
Personally, I loved Rowan; she is the character that made this book for me. She’s kind of hyper-competent, a bit like Miles Vorkosigan but with less personal angst. She’s very sure of her moral center, which necessarily means that she’s unsure for most of the book. She is cautious, weighs evidence and possibilities in a way that seems both natural to her personality and very much a part of her training as steerswoman. I really like it when authors take the time to follow through with their set-up, and the way Rowan thinks definitely fits this. At the same time, there’s a line between competent and annoying and this unsureness allows Rowan to not simply be Always Right in an unbelievable way.
I had a slightly harder time connecting with either Bel or Willam, although I hope that they’re both fleshed out a bit more in subsequent books. Their motivations, and in fact the motivations of most of the characters, worked for me, though. There’s also an interesting conflict between the philosophies of the steerswomen, and those of the wizards and their servants. The wizards will not answer the steerswomen’s questions, and so they are under their ban; it’s a conflict in a way between the ideal of free information and secrecy. (One of the most interesting moments to me is when Kirstein gently shows how absolute the rule of answer a steerswoman’s questions or losing their answers forever is. Rowan, who has been such a sympathetic character, follows it, and it’s very jarring.)
This does most definitely read as the first book in a series, and I did not have the second book on hand, which was a mistake. I hope to fix that soon, and read as many books as are currently published.
Book source: inter-library loan
Book information: 1989, Del Ray; adult speculative fiction