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Review: _The Steerswoman's Road_, by Rosemary Kirstein
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
This is an omnibus of _The Steerswoman_, and _The Outskirter's Secret_, the first two books of a series I have heard recommended by various people whose tastes I often respect. I can now add my praise to theirs.

A casual glance might mistake this for typical Extruded Fantasy Product: multiple volumes, each fairly thick; dragons and wizards prominently featured in early chapters. This would be a significant mistake. This series is actually fairly hard SF, thinly disguised as fantasy. I thought at first that it was set on an extremely-post-apocalypse Earth, but as of book 2, there seems to be something much more complicated and interesting going on.

The Steerswoman of the title is a member of a very interesting organization. They are essentially travelling research librarians, totally absorbed with the collection, dissemination, and analysis of knowledge. They are sworn to answer any question fully and completely -- so long as you answer their questions in return.

While there are 'wizards' around, it soon becomes clear that their magic is simply technology which they have and other people don't. The tech level of the general populace seems to be roughly medieval, but wizards have access to (at least) information-age electronic gadgetry. This tech is guarded jealously.

When our protagonist, Rowan, inadvertently starts following a research trail that will uncover some wizardly secrets, the wizards begin to threaten her life -- and, by extension, those of her guildmates. Finding this restriction of their research intolerable, the Steerswomen begin to plan their own counter-moves. Much to my surprise, the major conflict in this 'fantasy' series is about Intellectual Property Rights! The heroic Open Source group, fighting against the oppressive forces of Trade Secret Monopolies! Not that any such names are used, but the basic conflict is clear.

A brief digression: One of the experiences I love most, whether in fiction, or gaming, or real life, is the Moment of Revelation, that breakthrough when all the pieces fall into place, and the Big Picture comes into sudden sharp focus. Many stories contain such moments, both for the protagonists and the readers. I have long noted that one of the marks of a good author-reader relationship is when the Revelation comes for the reader just a few pages before it comes for the protagonist. Much earlier, and the protagonist may seem foolish to the reader; much later, and the reader may see *themselves* as foolish. (For me, Lois McMaster Bujold is extremely well calibrated in this regard.)

In these books, Rosemary Kirstein has a very unusual approach to the timing of the Moment of Revelation. As Rowan explores her world, she frequently discovers things that she doesn't have the background to understand -- but which a typical science fiction reader *will* understand. Rowan is extremely intelligent, and as well-educated as any one in her culture could be, but that still leaves the reader in a very privlileged position.

For example, Rowan starts out by investigating some unusual 'jewels'. From the information provided, the SF reader quickly realizes that these are some unusual kind of meteorite. But Rowan doesn't have the concept of 'meteorite'. As she examines their distribution pattern, she spins some working theories about these stones having been 'tossed by a giant'. She understands the basic mathematics of falling objects, but as she extrapolates the numbers further and further out, she eventually comes across the notion that if an object was 'thrown' with sufficient force, that the turning of the world would prevent it from ever reaching the ground. Since this result is "obviously nonsense", she thinks something must be wrong with her math. It isn't until almost the end of the first book that she gets enough data to accept the concept of what we would call orbital mechanics.

Although the plot and character details contain plenty of surprises, in terms of understanding the world at large, I feel like I'm staying about three-quarters of a volume ahead of the protagonist. I suspect someone who knew nothing of SF tropes could still easily enjoy and understand these books (since Rowan eventually comes up with clear answers), but having familiarity with them adds a wholly original layer of enjoyment to the experience.

Although I've spent a lot of time talking up one aspect of the writing, it is far from the only pleasure to be had here. The characters are well-rounded and (mostly) sympathetic. Far from being padded, each book is exactly as long as it needs to be to get where it's going, without needless fat. The societies of this world, though varied, all appear to be casually free of sexism, or extreme hangups about sexuality. Action and adventure are to be found in abundance, including a few extremely well-written sword fights in the second volume, where the tactics of the fights actually lead to some important character revelations.

I'll be ordering the third and fourth books directly. I recommend the first two unreservedly.
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Neat! I've ordered the first one. This sounds right up my alley.

Even better: you think you're 3/4 of a volume ahead of her, but she's not going to take the path that you (well, I) expected. And there's at least one major surprise left.

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