This past summer I had another happy accident with a book. I was in my local library branch when a book’s cover caught my eye. It had a picture of a very interesting looking woman and the title was just as intriguing: The Language of Power.
I checked the spine to see if I recognized the name of the author, but Rosemary Kirstein didn’t ring any bells. Along the bottom of the cover it said she had also written a book called The Lost Steersman Since nothing in the title of the book I had in my hand indicated that the two were related I took it home with me to read.
It was only when I cracked the book open that I discovered that I had picked up book number four, the most resent, in an ongoing series. Since I’ve never let a little thing like continuity stand in my way of enjoyment, I decided to go ahead and read the book anyway.
It says a lot for the skills of Rosemary Kirstein that even though there were references to happenings in the previous books, and some things that would only make sense to someone familiar with them, I was fascinated with the story and her central character: Rowan the steerswoman.
Thus began my hunt to try and track down the three previous volumes: The Steerswoman, The Outskrter’s Secret, (these two are now also available in an omnibus edition called The Steerswoman’s Road) and the previously mentioned The Lost Steersman. Naturally I tried the library first, figuring since they had volume four they would also have the early volumes as well, but I was wrong. Not one branch in the whole Kingston Public Library system had any of the other volumes.
Even more mysteriously neither did any of the local bookstores carry them. Oh sure I could have ordered them, but I couldn’t afford what they were charging. I managed to pick up one in a used bookstore, but I was starting to get desperate. I thought these books were great and wanted to write about them, but it made no sense to do so if I hadn’t read them all.
Then the good folks at Random House Canada came to my rescue. I wrote them telling them of my dilemma and within a week they had sent me review copies of the books I needed to be able to write this piece. I’m giving them a much deserved plug right here, for sending me the books based only on the links I provided them to blogcritics.org and a few thank you letters that people had written to me for reviews I had done. I’d feel a lot kindlier towards publishers if more of them were like Random House Canada.
Rowan is a Steerswomen: that makes her different from the rest of the people in the Inner Lands, The Outskirts and the whole known world. She, and the other members of her order, walk the roads and sail the rivers of their world mapping, asking questions, and giving answers. They are the repositories of knowledge, the keepers of wisdom, and the record keepers.
When you ask a Steerswomen a question she is honoured bound to answer you the truth. When she asks you a question you owe her the same obligation. If you refuse a steerswomen’s request for an answer or the truth, you are placed under the Steerswomen’s ban that means they are forbidden to answer any question you ask, no matter how banal.
The Steerswomen (there are only a few Steersmen) record everything they learn in their journals. These journals are stored by the order as references for Steerswomen to come, and as a record of events of the ages. No scrape of knowledge is beneath the notice of the Steerswomen; the eating habits of goats in the Outskirts might just play a vital part in the survival of people in another part of the world.
Long ago when the wizards and the first Steerswomen came into contact the wizards were placed under the Steerswomen’s ban for refusing to answer questions about their powers and what they did in the world. The wizards did not believe themselves to be subject to the laws of the common folk, and used those who lived in their districts with a capriciousness bordering on the cruel.
Seeing how it is the desire of every Steerswomen, and the direction of the order, to find out as much about everything in their world as they possibly can, the wonder is that they haven’t come into open conflict with Wizards until now. But it wasn’t until Rowan started to investigate mysterious blue jewels that first appeared in the world forty-five years ago that wizards made any move against a Steerswoman.
Rowan has only been a Steerswoman for five years when she comes across a small blue jewel of which there has been no previous record. It is in The Steerswoman that we first meet her as she is beginning her quest into the origins of these strange items. As she discovers more and more samples of them throughout the know territories she starts to realize that they are distributed in a straight line across the lands.
Unlike a normal jewel that is mined, these have shown up in strange places; embedded inside a tree for instance, only discovered because the tree was felled for construction. When Rowan befriends one of the barbarian Outlanders named Bel the mystery only deepens. Bel wears a belt decorated with those same jewels given her as a reminder of her father.
How could these blue jewels describe a straight line from one end of the world to the other? According to Rowan it’s like a huge giant threw them in an arc that causing them to rain down on the earth as they lost momentum. But even that wouldn’t be possible, even if there were giants in the world, there would be no place high enough where they could stand that their throw could describe that arc.
High above the world, seemingly affixed in the sky, hang the East and West Guidestars. For centuries everybody has used them as their means of direction finding. Only the Steerswomen believe that they may not have always hung in the sky, and so may not be there forever. Only the Steerswomen can navigate without them when necessary.
The Steerswomen novels by Rosemary Kirstein are elaborate anthropological and sociological studies on the clash of cultures and the impact of technology on a world when its secrets are held in the hands of only a few. It doesn’t take us a great leap to figure out that the Guidestars are in fact types of Satellites and that they are connected to the jewels. But for the people of Rowan’s world this is magic beyond their comprehension.
The people of the Inner Lands and the Outskirts live equivalent lives to what we would consider medieval peasantry. The majority are illiterate and depend on the Steerswomen for telling them their history and keeping them informed of events in the world outside of their own villages.
The Outskirters are nomadic tribesmen that follow grazing pastures for their goats. Never able to stay in one place for long as their herds devour grazing lands, their environment is so hostile and harsh that they consider themselves to be in a war for survival. They do their utmost to kill the land before it kills them.
Even the plant life of the Outskirts can be fatal to humans, never mind the packs of goblins who haunt the wastes, and the treacherous bogs waiting to swallow people whole. When Rowan accompanies Bel back to the Outskirts in The Outskirter’s Secret in an attempt to find the fallen Guidestar she gets first hand experience of how difficult life is on the plains.
Although one of their reasons for the trip to the Outskirts was to alert the tribes to the fact that the wizards are a potential threat to all those who dwell in the inhabited lands, it’s only while they are there that they learn the true significance of that threat. As they discover more about the true nature of the Guidestars, they begin to realize the enormity of the danger that their world faces.
The wizards, or one of them anyway, whose powerful enough to force the others to do his bidding, seem intent on bringing all the species of the world into conflict. Playing on the inherit fear and mistrust humans have for things they don’t understand they hope by forcing contact between peoples and species that the result will be conflict.
All that stands between this are people like Rowan and her sister Steerswomen. They are the only ones who can serve as emissaries between the different segments of the world by learning and than teaching what they’ve learnt. Steerswomen don’t lie, so they will be believed and listened to when they speak.
In The Steerswomen and The Outskirter’s Secret Rosemary Kirstein establishes a setting for a study of one of the major problems our own world faces. How a select few try to use superior knowledge and access to information to control the majority.
Ms. Kirstein has created marvellous characters that make the themes she is addressing all the more real. Rowan and Bel; the cool, rational, Steerswoman and the fiery, emotional Barbarian Outskirter, could easily have become stereotypes, or clichés. Instead we are given two individuals who unique even amongst their own people. As the reader we see almost everything through Rowan’s eyes, so our worldview evolves in tandem with her’s.
We share her revulsion at the things the wizards are doing, her excitement as she learns something new, her pleasure in recounting a story to a willing audience, and her wonder at the mysteries of the world. Through her relationship with Bel, both Rowan and the reader discover how two cultures can utilize their differences to compliment each other. We see her piece this bit of information together with what she’s learning about the wizards and watch her try to gain an understanding of what it all means.
Rowan the Steerswoman not only maps the physical geography of the world, but is trying to map out a sociological blueprint for people to follow. Tomorrow in part two of this overview of The Steerswomen books by Rosemary Kirstein I’ll look at how the third and fourth books The Lost Steersman and The Language of Power continue the story of Rowan and Bel and their attempts to understand the world around them.