Every so often, I come across an amazing book I’ve somehow managed to miss for my entire life. Occasionally, it’s even a series. This was the case for The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein, a four-book series that a friend recommended to me a few months ago. I finally got around to reading it over Easter weekend—and once I started, I couldn’t put it down.
The Steerswoman series was actually written some time ago, over a period of years, ranging from 1989 to 2004. As I understand it, Kirstein had a day job that took up most of her time, so she wasn’t able to find much time for writing the books—but that day job ended in December 2015, so she’ll have more time for it now.
In any event, Kirstein now has the rights to her books back, has self-republished them on Amazon at very reasonable rates, and is currently working on the fifth and sixth books in the series. (She has plans for seven books altogether, plus a prequel.) So it seems like a reasonable time to take a look at them now.
The protagonist of the Steerswoman series is the eponymous Steerswoman herself, Rowan by name. The Steerswomen are a guild of traveling scholars and cartographers, who live by the code that if they are asked a question, they must answer to the best of their abilities and knowledge, so long as the asking party is willing to answer their own questions in return.
At odds with the Steerswomen are the mysterious Wizards, a group of powerful magic-users who are by and large under ban from the Steerswomen for refusing to answer any questions about the nature of the magic they use. Two groups, actually, as the wizards divide themselves into political factions, Red and Blue—but as with magic, the nature of wizard politics is also mysterious and impenetrable to outsiders.
As the first book opens, Rowan is investigating a spate of mysterious artifacts that have appeared all over the land in the last few decades—trying to work out how and why they got there and where they came from. In the course of her investigations, she meets Bel, a barbarian warrior-woman from the outskirts of civilization, and they agree to travel together for a while.
When Rowan and Bel are attacked by wizards’ men shortly after Rowan very openly asked questions about those artifacts, they begin to realize that wizards and these artifacts they’re investigating must have some kind of connection—and figuring out what it is might require some undercover investigation. This investigation will take them to some unexpected places over the course of the books that follow, as they puzzle out ancient knowledge and hidden conspiracies and make some surprising discoveries about their world.
It’s hard to figure out exactly how much to say about these books. They start out appearing to be a standard sword-and-sorcery series, but gradually turn into something very different. (Kirstein said in a Locus interview (caution: contains spoilers) that her goal with the series was to take every fantasy trope she could find and turn it around 180 degrees, and she succeeds very well at this.) Genre-savvy readers will probably get some idea of what’s going on within just the first few pages, and will know for certain they’re right by the end of the first book.
The fun thing about the series is that the protagonists are genuinely intelligent, and are able to use that intelligence to make sense of the world around them. The things they discover are old hat to us but unknown to them, and they have to work them out from first principles. The aforementioned genre-savvy readers will have a pretty clear idea of exactly what’s going on well before the characters do, but that just means we get to anticipate watching them work those things out.
I have to admit, this is one time I’m really glad I came to the series late. If I’d discovered them while they were being written originally, I would have been in for a frustrating wait for more to come out. It’s been twelve years since the fourth book was originally published, and the fifth still isn’t ready yet—but at least it’s on the horizon. I really hope that they can come out more regularly from here on out—I really want to know what happens next!
Another great thing about the series is that it’s extremely reasonably-priced. The first two books, The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Secret, are only $2.99 each. The third and fourth, The Lost Steersman and The Language of Power, are only $3.99 each. You can buy the whole bundle for less than $14. It’s a great bargain, and a great way to spend a number of delightful hours reading.
Then you can join me in waiting anxiously for the next one to come out.
Update: Corrected number of planned books in the series, per comment below.