I first heard about Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman on a list of excellent female-authored fantasy that had been undeservedly forgotten. The premise struck me immediately: Steerswomen are a group dedicated to the collection and free distribution of knowledge, traveling the world asking and answering questions. They will truthfully answer any question asked of them, no matter how personal or how absurd, as long as the asker answers their questions in turn. I wasn’t sure how to find a fantasy plot in that premise, let alone a full six-book series plot, but the concept was intriguing enough that I wanted to see Kirstein try. Now, having caught up with all four published installments, it’s safe to say I’m hooked.
The tricky part about reviewing The Steerswoman Series is figuring out how much information to give. Because it doesn’t take long to realize that this isn’t the kind of world you think it is. On the surface, Kirstein starts with a bog-standard adventure fantasy introduction: our lead is having a drink in the common room of an inn, where she befriends a barbarian warrior, and they set upon a quest together. Soon after, they find that a group of secretive and powerful wizards are out to ensure that this quest fails. Adventure ensues.
Even at this point, there are a couple slight diversions from the fantasy standard. After all, Rowan, the main character, is not a warrior or mage but a scholar, and her quest is not for an item of great power but rather for simple knowledge. But it soon becomes clear that, despite the tropey fantasy trappings, The Steerswoman is as much science fiction as it is anything else. By chapter two, Rowan is drawing in the dirt teaching physics to her warrior companion Bel. And it goes from there. Rowan may live in a world without modern technology, but she knows her science and constantly analyzes her experience against the existing body of knowledge. And it’s with this mind that Rowan seeks to evade the wizards and their secret magics to discover the truth that they so fear her finding.
The eponymous series-opener, The Steerswoman, is in many ways an 80s adventure fantasy, with the heroes using their wits and their swords—she may be a scholar, but Rowan is trained in self-defense—to stay one step ahead of their pursuers and complete their quest. But, while the adventure is fun and well-written, the departures from the norm are what set it apart. How many fantasy adventurers have honesty in all circumstances as a core commitment? How many main characters are analytically-inclined women who are neither rash nor gregarious, but who are patient, thoughtful, and comfortable with solitude? How many adventure stories center the friendship of two women, with no romance to speak of and with men serving merely as secondary characters?
That friendship is undoubtedly one of the standout elements of the series. Despite cultural differences that often lead to misunderstandings, Rowan and Bel consistently display a patience and desire to learn that sees their relationship grow from mutual curiosity to the kind of bond that puts them on par with the all-time great fantasy duos. They constantly teach each other, and because Kirstein allows the reader context that is not available to her characters, the audience constantly gets the opportunity to sit with the characters as they put pieces together and see them click. And that “aha” moment is absolutely delightful every single time–it just never gets old.
The series only grows from the fun and slightly subversive opener. The overarching struggle against the wizards continues, but with a remarkably different form–and with a satisfying intermediate arc–in each entry. Book two sees Rowan living among a foreign culture, book three studying a hostile species encroaching on human territory, and book four back in familiar territory trying to piece together mysterious bits of history. The stakes only get bigger as the series progresses, with Rowan learning more and more about the people she’s up against and their capabilities, and the quality of the series increases right along with them.
The Steerswoman is fun, and The Outskirter’s Secret introduces some fascinating exploration of new lands and peoples, although moving a bit more slowly overall. But, as the Steerswoman maxim goes, it takes three to tell a coincidence from a pattern, and The Lost Steersman cements the series as truly great. By that point, the characters are so fully-drawn as to feel like old friends, the reader’s increasing understanding makes the “aha” moments even more of a delight, and the good versus evil storyline deepens into a nuanced tale with some stunning exploration of gender and personhood. And though The Language of Power pauses some of this exploration, the continued expansion of Rowan’s understanding and the reuniting of some separated characters made it a joy to read. To be honest, it hit the point where it was so refreshing to be back in this world and with these characters that it was hard to see the flaws—not that there were many to see.
I hope that one day, Kirstein, who is now self-publishing the series after Del Rey’s publishing rights lapsed, will give us the fifth and sixth entries. But even if she doesn’t, it has been completely worth the read. I’m delighted to have spent four books with the Steerswoman.
Highly recommended if you like: dynamic duos, hyper-analytical leads, adventures, exploration, trope subversion, free sharers of information up against those who would keep their knowledge a secret.
Can I use it for Bingo? Absolutely. All four books fit found family, mystery plot (hard mode), self-published, and genre mashup. The first book is a debut, and the fourth has a ____ of _____ title format.
Overall rating: for the series, 18 of Tar Vol’s 20, five stars on Goodreads. For the individual books (in order), 15, 14, 19, and 19.