Rowan is a steerswoman, member of a guild of scholars and explorers. A steerswoman is bound to answer any question she is asked, except in one circumstance, and in return may expect an answer to any question she asks. Any person who meets a steerswoman's question with a lie or an evasion risks the steerswoman's ban; thereafter that person may not ask any question, no matter how trivial, of any steerswoman.
(Steerswomen do not get on with wizards, who guard their secrets jealously and do not care whether they are placed under ban; they have their own mysterious sources of knowledge.)
When Rowan sets out to find the origin of an unusual gemstone, she thinks it's just a curiosity. Certainly she doesn't expect it to be part of a secret which somebody might kill to protect. As her investigation proceeds, she discovers that the gemstones' origin is tied up in secrets concerning the origin of the world as she knows it (which is far deeper and stranger than she ever imagined), and that everybody's future may be hanging on the truth she uncovers.
The series so far consists of four novels:
- The Steerswoman
- The Outskirter's Secret
- The Lost Steersman
- The Language of Power
The first two novels have also been published in a single volume under the title The Steerswoman's Road.
A large part of the fun of the series is figuring out, along with Rowan, what's really going on, so there will be a lot of spoiler tags from this point on.
The series provides examples of:
- Anti-Magic: Steerswomen and sailors are said to have some immunity against wizards' magic. It's because they wear rubber-soled boots, which insulate them from electric shock.
- Apothecary Alligator: An early edition of The Steerswoman shows, on the cover, a scene set in a wizard's sanctum. You can tell it's a wizard's sanctum because of the stuffed crocodile hanging from the roof — an interesting case of trope-as-shorthand, since the wizards' sanctum in the book itself is entirely bereft of taxidermied reptiles.
- Can Not Tell A Lie: Rowan, although circumstances have obliged her to gain skill at misleading omission.
- Death from Above: In The Outskirter's Secret, Rowan learns that there is a wizard spell with this effect, and narrowly avoids getting taken out with it. Kill Sat. Which, before Slado started using it to make things difficult for his enemies, was originally set up as a Terraforming tool.
- Egopolis: The port town of Donner was originally called something else before being renamed in honour of a wizard who settled in the town after saving it from rampaging dragons. (Neither he, nor his successors down to the present day, was ever a dictator, officially, though when there's a wizard living nearby you tend to do what he tells you.) What Rowan learns about dragons in The Language of Power strongly suggests that Donner caused the dragon rampage in the first place, to gain the townspeople's gratitude.
- Fantasy World Map: As Rowan explores the world, later installments of the series have more and more of the map filled in.
- Hand Signals: The wood gnomes communicate using a sign language.
- I Am X, Son of Y: The Outskirters have three-part Icelandic-style names of the form "X, Ysdotter (or Ysson), Z", where Y is one's mother and Z is one's great-great-...-great-grandmother, 60-some generations back, at the inception of the culture. One is also expected to know all the intervening names, and to be able to trot out the full list from memory at appropriate ceremonial occasions. The character who gets the most page time is Bel, Margasdotter, Chanly.
- Our Demons Are Different: They're four-armed, four-legged Starfish Aliens who see by sonar and speak by excreting three-dimensional pictograms. And this is their planet.
- Our Dragons Are Different: They're robots built by a wizard for a long-running Monster Protection Racket.
- Our Gnomes Are Weirder: They have long arms and prehensile feet and communicate entirely through Hand Signals. Rowan, the point-of-view character, doesn't know the word "chimpanzee", but...
- Our Goblins Are Different: They're non-sapient insectoid alien wildlife.
- Open Sesame: Jannik's computer system works this way. Willam beats it with a tape recorder.
- Protective Charm: In The Lost Steersman, the title character has an amulet that prevents demons from attacking him. The "demons" see by sonar, and mark important places in their settlements with little three-dimensional sculptures that return distinctive echoes. The amulet is made out of a marker that says, "Eggs have been laid here, please keep clear".
- Timber!: The Outskirters shout it when felling tall objects, even though there are not and never have been any trees in the Outskirts.
- You All Meet in an Inn: The Steerswoman begins in an inn, where Rowan meets Bel for the first time and Bel joins her in her travels.