This is the second of a two part series reviewing Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswomen Saga. Part one can be found here
In the first two books of her series tracing the quest of the Steerswoman Rowan as she investigates mysterious blue gems and their origins, Rosemary Kirstein introduces the major themes that the books will be dealing with. The control of knowledge to have power over others, and the problems that arise when different peoples come into contact with each other.
In The Steerswomen’s Road (an omnibus collection of: The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Secret) We learnt about the wizards who control the magic of the world, something of the nature of that magic, and about the two prominent tribes or races of people.
The people of the Inner lands roughly equate to medieval earth in life style and living. Technology is limited to simple hand tools and basic implements. Like medieval earth a feudal Lord, who in this case is a wizard, dominates most populated areas of the Inner Lands. If the wizard in your area says jump, you ask how high or you could find yourself dead. The wizards rule their fiefdoms through a combination of fear and ignorance. The inhabitants are kept ignorant of the workings of magic and thus fear the wizards.
The Outskirters are nomads who seem to be free of the influence of the wizards. They roam their desolate landscape in continual war against an environment that could kill them if they get careless. Since tribes are constantly on the move searching for better grazing territory, there is almost continual conflict over things like grazing rights and fresh water.
Rowan and her Outskirter friend Bel make an alarming discovery at the end of The Outskirter’s Secret The Guidestars that seemingly hang immobile in the sky to serve as points of reference for navigating are not at all what they seem to be. Already they have discovered that there are more than two of these strange satellites, because it was one of them falling out of orbit that caused the distribution of the mysterious blue gems across the known world.
Even more sinister is the fact that the wizards have been using them for a spell called Routine Bioform Clearance every twenty years in the Outskirts. Until recently it has actually been used beneficially, but now it is being turned on the tribes. The wizards are trying to destroy the Outskirts and force the Outskirters into conflict with the people of the Inner Lands through the elimination of their territory.
But it’s not something that all the wizards are happy about. They are being coerced themselves by one wizard more powerful then the rest, Slado. In the third book of the seriesThe Lost Steersman we find Rowan searching for information about this mysterious wizard who almost nobody has ever seen. She hopes to find tidings of him in old steerswomen journals. She travels to a remote town of the Inner Lands to visit one of the annexes where these works are stored and preserved.
While she is studying here she makes two important discoveries seemingly unrelated to Slado, but in fact are tied into his plans for what appears to be the destruction of the world’s populaces. The first is that life forms of all kinds from the Outskirts are beginning to encroach upon the Inner Lands. These introduced species could eventually come to dominate the environment of the Inner Lands, turning once fertile farming communities into harsh outback.
The second is about one of the species in particular. It is a particularly dangerous creature that is known by the Outskirters as a Demon. It seems to have no discernable head or tail end, and hunts by sound. When it hears a noise it swings an end in that direction and sprays its victim with a highly toxic substance that kills instantly.
Before these creatures were limited to the Outskirts, but now they have invaded the streets of the town Rowan had been staying in three nights in a row, and in increasing numbers. The only clue she has to tracking them down rests with a former Steersman, Janus, who resides in the town.
He had quit under mysterious circumstances and had been placed under the Steerswomen’s ban. A Steerswomen is required to answer any question put to her, but in return everybody must answer her questions. If you either lie to a Steerswomen or refuse to answer a question you are placed under a ban that prohibits a Steerswomen from answering even the simplest of your questions.
In the end Rowan makes the long and treacherous journey to the area where the demons live and makes the amazing discovery that they are not just creatures, but they are in fact a sentient life form, who have their own methods of communication. They communicate not through ideas like us, but conceptually through images and shapes.
The females are able to generate forms which they than assemble into a message from which others gather their intent. The males, unable to generate these shapes, literally pick through cast off concepts to form their messages. When Rowan finally finds them they are in the midst of an internal struggle with the males trying to gain acceptance for their means of expression.
While barely escaping with her life she also makes the horrible discovery that it is the ex Steersman, Janus, who has been leading the creatures back to the town. He has been systematically trying to exterminate them, because he believes them to be evil. They have of course been trying to catch him before he can kill them all.
With Slado working so hard to force the three very different sentient beings into closer and closer quarters for what appears to be the purpose of mutual destruction it has become even more important to track him down. But how do you find a man, who nobody has seen in forty-five years, whose power is so great that he has cowed the rest of the wizards into obeying him. Why, with the help of a wizard of course.
At the beginning of their travels together Rowan and Bel had come across a young blacksmith’s son named William. Unique among the common folk, William has been able to teach himself some very particular spells. His spells can either cause things to burn or to blow up, dependant on the strength or amount of the spell he uses. At the end of the first book Rowan was able to apprentice William with a wizard, who although not willing to challenge Slado openly, was not happy about following his orders or what he was doing.
When Rowan and Bel show up in the town, book four The Language Of Power, where Slado was last seen, they find that William is there as well. He and his master have started to work actively, but discreetly, against Slado. Through William, Rowan and the reader, begin to learn more about the nature of the magic that the wizards of this world employ.
For Rowan who is used to being able to record causes and effects through the simple process of observing things and people in action understanding how the magic works requires a significant alteration in her methods of reasoning and observation. When William shows her a timepiece that he carries her reaction reflects how far she has to go in her understanding:
…it seemed that the Krue(wizards)could confiscate and command the very powers of nature, and this she was forced to accept as fact. But these were powers that already existed, independently.
The steerswoman could think of nothing at all in the natural world that would do so peculiar a thing as hang from the end of a bit of string and cheerfully, innocently, count…Rosemary Kirstein, The Language of Power: Random House 2004. p.204
Throughout the novels Ms. Kirstein has been dropping broader and broader hints that the so-called magic used in this world, is in fact what we would call technology. It exists apart from the natural world which is all Rowan has for a frame of reference, so she must attempt to create a new context wherein she can place this new knowledge.
It’s a fascinating experience to watch a person come to grips with items you and I take for granted. The world that Ms. Kirstein has created, and the people she has populated it with are ones we can readily identify with. To watch an intelligent and aware person such as Rowan struggle to accept and understand technology reminds us of how amazing these things are.
What is truly remarkable about these books is how they are able to be two things at once. First they are simply a good story, an adventure that is both exciting and interesting as we follow the characters around the world. In each book Rowan and Bel are introduced to a new range of people who they work with, learn from, and teach.
The characters of Rowan the Steerswoman and Bel the Outskirter are complete individuals. Part of the enjoyment of these stories is watching the interplay between the two women. Bel is brash, outspoken, and quite as likely to burst into song as start a fight. Rowan on the other hand is reserved, thoughtful and continually working. Everything is grist for the mill of a Steerswoman’s search for knowledge and explanations.
The contrast between the two women, and they way that they begin to change from prolonged contact to each other is fascinating. Bel, instead of seeing things only in terms of survival for her tribe, begins to take a wider worldview of events. She learns to see how something that may not at first seem relevant to her people, will end up affecting them.
Rowan learns to understand that different environments require different ways of thinking. From Bel she learns that one cannot impose the way you are used to living onto a new place. You have to learn how to adapt yourself to it, because it will not change to suit you.
Kirstein’s depiction of their friendship’s growth is wonderfully done. Even though there is an immediate bond between the women, they still go through a real process of getting to know each other and earning the other’s trust and respect. The journey of adventure is not the only path that is walked in this story, so is the path of friendship. It is a remarkable process, within a remarkable series of books.
At each stop on their journey they are able to tell people a little more about what is happening to them, and how the wizards are using them. In Language of Power they take one more step on their road of discovery and understanding. The elusive target of Slado is starting to come into range, and magic is becoming even less of a mystery. It will be fascinating to see how Ms. Kirstein continues this journey in however many more books this adventure takes. I’m eagerly awaiting the next instalment.