The Steerswoman's Road by Rosemary Kirstein
Del Rey / Random House Trade: ISBN 034546105 PubDate: 07/01/03
Review by Lucy Schmeidler
653 pgs. List price $15.95
Buy this book and support SFRevu at halfprice.com / Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Steerswoman's Road was originally published as two volumes: The Steerswoman (1989) and The Outskirter's Secret (1992). The first part introduces the concept of the steerswomen (and very occasional steersmen), who roam the world acquiring information, which they send back to their Archives for further study and dissemination. The order lives by two simple rules: A steerswoman must, normally, answer any question put to her as truthfully as she is able, and any question asked by a steerswoman must be answered truthfully. The only pressure used to enforce the second rule is the "Steerswomen's ban": Anyone who knowingly refuses to answer a steerswoman's question is placed under the ban, which means that no question of theirs will be answered by any steerswoman.
The only people who routinely refuse to answer the steerswomen are the wizards, whose power is based on their knowledge of magic, which they refuse to share with anyone else. But while the steerswomen resent them for this, the wizards usually ignore the steerswomen as beneath their notice. Thus it comes as a surprise when the steerswoman Rowan's study of some unusual gems leads the wizards into trying to kill her. And Rowan, who is always trying to understand things, wants to know why, and investigates the jewels all the more, even though she is forced to resign for a time from the steerswomen, and lie, a most dishonorable and painful act.
The second half of The Steerswoman's Road, originally published as The Outskirter's Secret, follows Rowan's travels with Bel, a barbarian Outskirter, who comes from the easternmost of the known lands, where herds of goats eat the redgrass that is eaten by nothing else, and are eaten in turn by the Outskirters, for whom the local vegetation is poisonous. And here, in a harshly alien landscape, Rowan and Bel together discover more of what the wizards have done and can do, and why their world is as it is.
The presence of dragons, goblins, and demons, as well as the wizards gives this book an appearance of fantasy, but the steerswomen's reliance on logic and mathematics has more the feel of science fiction, and the wizards' "magic" looks more and more like technology. Knowledge of all but the most primitive technology having been lost to the rest of the folk, the reader is presented with a fascinating puzzle: Who are these people? Why do their traditional stories tell of a moon, when there has been no moon in the sky within anyone's memory? The Steerswoman books stand up well to rereading, and should lead, eventually, to a great moment of understanding, for both steerswomen and readers.