bookish posts reviews

The Language of Power by Rosemary Kirstein

Reunited with her friend Bel, the steerswoman Rowan is once more on the trail of the wizard Slado. But when her enquiries lead her to the place Slado learned magic, she encounters another figure from her past and finally learns some of the answers to her questions–although the consequences are not what she expects.

The Language of Power by Rosemary Kirstein is the fourth and last published book in the Steerswoman series. I’ve read the first three previously, and wanted to get to the end of the current series to see if Rowan finally figures out what is happening.

Overall, this wasn’t a full resolution to the questions and conflicts of the series. But since I know that Kirstein is hoping to eventually release at least a fifth book, I was at least prepared for this to be the case. And there is enough of an answer that it doesn’t feel like wasted effort to read.

One of the things I’ve liked about these books is that Rowan is depicted as a competent character, overall assured of her purpose and place in the world. She knows what her values are and attempts to live by them to the best of her ability. Most of the tension comes from either her search for Slado or those moment when she’s not able to live by those values.

All of that adds up to a book and series which straddle genre lines–part fantasy, part science fiction, part mystery–and which is not quite plot-driven and not quite character-driven. This may sound like a criticism, but I mean it as an explanation; this is a story which embraces ambiguity and which keeps the reader guessing about its ultimate goals and intentions. It certainly won’t be for everyone, but I suspect the readers who have found it and love it do so with a quietly fervent passion.

That being said, I do feel that the plot was slightly annoying here because it relies on a twist that has been used several other times in the series. And while it could be that this is purposeful and significant, it felt more to me like lazy storytelling.

However, in terms of the broader picture, I do feel that enough of the lingering questions have been answered that I’m okay leaving the series here for now. Hopefully Kirstein will be able to release more books in the series, but if that doesn’t happen, the story still feel relatively complete.

(There’s quite a bit more I could say but it would be full of spoilers, so I’ll leave it for now.)

All in all, while this isn’t a series I would push on everyone, I do hope that it finds more readers. It’s a fascinating look at a world that’s driven by ideas and knowledge, an interesting older female character who’s competent & assured and never punished for that, and some interesting twists and turns along the way. If that sounds like it might be your thing, do give these a try and let me know what you think!


Other books in the series:

The Steerswoman

The Outskirter’s Secret

The Lost Steersman


bookish posts reviews

TBR Stacks: The Lost Steersman by Rosemary Kirstein

So I’ve finally finished one of the books on my TBR challenge list. Hurray! The Lost Steersman is the third book in the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein, and I’ve read the first two books previously. It’s a series that does some interesting things with genre conventions, and with the underlying structures of the world.  (There are some non-specific spoilers below, so tread carefully if that’s something that will bother you.)

In The Lost Steersman, we pick up the story with Rowan separated from Bel, living in  the small town of Alemeth and trying so hard to be resigned to her situation. At the same time, she is still trying to find the wizard Slado, looking for him in the shadows, in what is not there. Meanwhile, one of the young people of Alemeth is trying to adjust to the new Steerswoman, who is about to change the course of his life.

It’s always nice to see the deepening of worldbuilding as a series goes on (this is one of the things I love about CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series) and here Kirstein really delves into the implications of the Steerswoman’s code of conduct. If Rowan believes in it, then she must act in certain ways; if she acts in certain ways, there will be consequences. It causes a kind of thinking that’s what we might call critical thinking but which feels much more fundamental than that within the context of the world. It’s related to what Terry Pratchett calls Second and Third Thoughts in the Tiffany Aching books.

And we also see how it can be used against the Steerswomen, how their commitment to the exchange of knowledge doesn’t mean that they are omnipotent. We see how the flaws in the system can hurt people as well as help them, and yet we also understand Rowan’s ultimate re-commitment to that system and its best practices.

I also was fascinated at the way Kirstein takes our expectations of narrative–that the solution of the problems in this book will advance the main storyline–and upends them. The threat here is not what Rowan thinks it is, and the moment when she finally admits that to herself is really effective.

This is a book about ideas almost more than characters, but I do find Rowan deeply sympathetic in a lot of ways. And there are lots of nicely-written moments in the story. Kirstein has a great understanding of how to move a story forward when long journeys are involved, which other fantasy writers might take notes from. The result is a story that feels tightly wound, propelling us towards a horizon we can’t quite see.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2003, Del Rey; adult specfic


Previously on By Singing Light:

Mary Stewart Reading Notes: The Ivy Tree (2016)

Not the Chosen One (2016)

Dorothy Sayers Reading Notes: Gaudy Night (2015)

book lists bookish posts

Diving into the TBR stacks

Are there some authors who perpetually hang out on your TBR list? Not because there’s anything wrong with their books, but just because there are so many. I have a few I’ve been meaning to get back to for *ahem* some time now and I need a little push to get me to actually do it. So here I am, committing to reading the following books by the following authors sometime this year.  We’ll see how this project unfolds!

An Earthly Crown by Kate Elliott

Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson

The Sleeping Life by Andrea K Höst

The Lost Steersman by Rosemary Kirstein

Half-Resurrection Blues by DJ Older

The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

Vicious by Victoria Schwab

Blood Spirits by Sherwood Smith

bookish posts reviews

The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein

steerswomanI 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