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Literature / The Steerswoman

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The Steerswoman series is a series of novels by Rosemary Kirstein, set in what appears at first to be a Standard Fantasy Setting, complete with demons, dragons, gnomes, goblins, and wizards.

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:

  1. The Steerswoman
  2. The Outskirter's Secret
  3. The Lost Steersman
  4. 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-Hero: While the protagonists are never cruel for cruelty's sake and rarely seek out violence, they can do horrible things to keep themselves alive in their search for truth, including cold-blooded torture, murdering a teenage girl, and blowing up part of a city in the first book alone. Bel is an Unscrupulous Hero bordering on Nominal Hero who is gleefully violent and never shows any moral scruples besides her respect for Rowan, while Rowan is a Pragmatic Hero who hates having to do these things but believes it's necessary for her survival.
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  • 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.
  • Badass Bookworm: All steerswomen are given sword training to protect themselves on the road. Rowan can more than handle herself, only needing Bel for more experienced fighters.
  • Barbarian Hero: Bel from the Outskirts wears lots of pelts, wields a huge sword, opines that society is better when you can stab someone for insulting you, and resorts to violence gleefully and with little remorse. When William and Rowan are looking in horror at all the people dead within the wizard's fortress, Bel just grins widely and calls it "well-done". She also has a very specific honor system, and while she's reasonable enough to let Rowan know when she's committed a serious faux pas, she also makes clear that she'll kill her if she ever tries it again.
  • Big Bad: Slado, a wizard respected and feared even by other wizards, whose secret plans are gradually uncovered by Rowan over the course of the series.
  • 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. It's a Kill Sat. Which, before Slado started using it to make things difficult for his enemies, was originally set up as a Terraforming tool.
  • Detonation Moon: There WAS a Moon. Now there isn't. Nobody knows what exactly happened. It persists as a cultural artifact in folktales, legends, and sayings (for example, "chasing the moon" is a saying that means doing something pointless or impossible.) Information on what exactly the Moon looked like or its behavior and movements in the sky is fragmented and unreliable, and after many generations without it, some people have come to believe it never existed.
  • Dramatic Irony: Being in a Standard Fantasy Setting, things that will be obvious to the reader are treated as mysteries by the protagonists. For example, a boy finds a certain black powder with the ability to break rocks when fire is applied, and assumes it's magical. As the series progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious that the wizard's "magics" are basic technological advancements like lightbulbs and wires, but it takes the protagonists a while to catch up to it.
  • 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.
  • Enforced Technology Levels: The wizards don't tolerate anyone messing with or learning from their magical devices, and will kill or abduct anyone who starts learning magic. They've been using it to maintain their hold over the world for centuries, keeping the rest of humanity down while hoarding space age levels of technology for themselves.
  • Fantasy World Map: As Rowan explores the world, later installments of the series have more and more of the map filled in.
  • Functional Magic: Wizards' magic appears to be a form of Rule Magic, with specific actions causing consistent effects, although the wizards do what they can to disguise this and prevent any non-wizard learning the rules. This is because it's actually Magic from Technology.
  • Guile Hero: Although trained in combat (and pretty good at it), Rowan's greatest strength is her intelligence and insight, and it is these she uses to uncover mysteries and outmaneuver enemies. As complementary abilities, her Steerswoman's training has also furnished her with a trained photographic memory, excellent record-keeping skills, and well-developed people reading abilities.
  • 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 Outskirter character who gets the most page time is Bel, Margasdotter, Chanly.
  • Information Wants to Be Free: The steerswomen's life mission is to gather knowledge and spread it as widely as possible. It puts them in conflict with the wizards, who hoard their secrets.
  • Living Motion Detector: During her first encounter with hunting dragons, Rowan discovers that they react rapidly to motion, but are inattentive to people who remain motionless.
  • The One Guy: There are a total of three steersmen, one quite old, and Rowan says that's the record number of steersmen in the society's history. There's no ban against men joining, but men rarely settle for the life of a traveling scholar.
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • Proud Warrior Race: The Outskirters, of the classic barbarian type. They are very proud, very traditional, and very, very violent.
  • Spoiler Cover: One of the early editions of The Steerswoman quite clearly has a computer system on the cover. So much for the Ontological Mystery. Ironically, it's also a case of Covers Always Lie since the scene it depicts never happens in the book.
  • Starfish Aliens: Demons resemble these, being four-armed and four-legged. Because that's what they actually are.
  • Timber!: The Outskirters shout it when felling tall objects, even though there are not and never have been any trees in the Outskirts.
  • Wandering Culture:
    • The Outskirters are nomads, traveling from place to place with their herds. In The Outskirters' Secret, one of them recounts a legend about the first Outskirters that explains why they never settle down in one place.
    • The steerswomen also count. They have a central location at the Archives, but steerswomen are expected to spend their lives traveling and gaining knowledge, only returning to the Archives to add to it or when they can't travel any more.
  • 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.