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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

Two more are planned to finish the series. 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.
  • 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.
  • The Apprentice: Wizards take apprentices, but they're noted to seemingly come out of nowhere. Nobody ever knows an apprentice's life history from before a wizard took them in, and the appointment of a new wizard doesn't always correlate with another's apprentice disappearing. Rowan is able to convince the wizard Corvus to take William on as an apprentice, and in the years that follow, he discovers that wizards and their apprentices aren't selected from Inner Landers but another, mysterious people called Krue. Other wizards look down on him because he isn't Krue, and think of his apprenticeship as a mere affectation by Corvus.
  • 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.
  • Awesomeness by Analysis: Rowan, as a steerswoman, is good at putting facts together to discover patterns and meanings, whether from received knowledge or the information from her senses. Failing this trope is the main reason prospective steerswomen flunk out during training; being a steerswoman isn't about memorizing facts by rote, but being able to put them to use.
  • 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.
  • Brains and Brawn: Rowan and Bel downplay it. As a steerswoman, Rowan is the brains, but she's also a skilled swordswoman who can handle herself in a fight. As a barbarian Outskirter, Bel is the brawn, but her mind is nearly as sharp as Rowan's. Bel is the better fighter, and Rowan is the better thinker, but they have much more overlap than the usual brains-and-brawn duo.
  • Can Not Tell A Lie: Rowan objects philosophically to the concept of lying and consequently is very bad at it, 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.
  • Dismembering the Body: Among the Outskirters, a proper Due to the Dead involves chopping the body to pieces and then "casting" the pieces across the Outskirts. Biochemical differences mean that decomposition poisons the soil and kills the plants that grow in it, allowing Earthly plant life to take hold later, as part of the Outskirters' eternal war against the Outskirts.
  • 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 wizards' "magic" is actually 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.
  • Had to Be Sharp: The source of Bel's fighting skills, along with everyone else in the Outskirts. Living on a virtually barren grassland with scarce natural resources, everyone's gotten very used to fighting both the land and each other to survive.
  • Hand Signals: The wood gnomes communicate using a sign language. The Outskirter tribes use their own for communicating over long distances. It's stated that every tribe has its own 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.
  • Klingon Scientists Get No Respect: Zig-zagged by the Outskirters. They divide themselves into warriors, who do the fighting, and mertutials, who do everything else: cooking, herding, mending, weaving, and so on. The first band of Outskirters Bel and Rowan meet on their way to the Outskirts indeed treat their mertutials like dirt... but this infuriates Bel, who for this and other reasons decries them as not true Outskirters. Among real Outskirters, mertutials are respected the same as warriors, and are often warriors themselves who have retired due to age or injury. In fact, Outskirter clans can only be led by mertutials, as warriors aren't taught things like how to keep track of supplies.
  • 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 Magocracy: In the Inner Lands, wizards don't technically hold any power, but they're dictators in all but name — they mostly keep to themselves, but whenever one of them starts giving orders, they must be obeyed. This ranges from forcing people to work for them for no pay up to conscripting entire armies to fight their occasional, inexplicable wars. Rowan hears an Outskirter derisively call Inner Landers nothing more than wizards' goats, and finds she can't really deny the comparison. By The Language of Power, Donner has had enough of its resident wizard abusing his power. Nobody sheds any tears when he gets assassinated, and they're resolved to make his replacement's life hell.
  • Noble Savage: Bel and the rest of the Outskirters are something of an aversion: at no point are they ever treated as more moral or less decadent than the "civilized" Inner Landers. They're neither better nor worse, just different. Not to mention that they don't remotely live in harmony with nature: they consider themselves to be at eternal war against the Outskirts itself, and do everything in their power to destroy the environment wherever they go.
  • 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: Demons are mysterious monsters known to live in the Outskirts. Nobody knows what they look like because everyone who's ever gotten that close has died. What is known is that they make a constant whistling noise, home in on other sounds, and spray acid potent enough to melt flesh from bone. Hearing one coming makes the Proud Warrior Race Outskirters get down and stay as still and silent as possible. They're four-armed, four-legged Starfish Aliens who see by sonar and speak by excreting three-dimensional pictograms. They're sapient. And this is their planet.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: At first glance, they're standard fantasy dragons: flying, scaly quadrupeds that breathe fire. However, they seem smaller than most fantasy dragons, can only see motion (stand still and they won't see you), and are very resilient — Rowan has to put her whole weight on a cat-sized dragonet's skull to crush it, and when she strikes one's eye with her sword, the eye is described as shattering. 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 squat humanoids that often come in numbers, but resemblances end there: they're non-sentient, vaguely insectoid (with multiple pairs of compound eyes and four mandibles), are drawn to light and heat like moths (so watch out where you make campfires), lay eggs, and have venomous bites that can do permanent nerve damage. Male goblins are called jacks, females are called jills.
  • 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. They also have a far-reaching oral history and a fondness for songs and poetry.
  • 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, with a mouth on top of their body and no eyes. They appear alien because they actually are aliens — the books are set on their planet, which has been colonized by humans.
  • That Sounds Familiar: "Seyoh", the Outskirter word for the leader of a tribe, is almost certainly derived from CO, or commanding officer, as implied most strongly by the Outskirters' use of military time and their use of clock position to tell location even though that sort of clock doesn't exist anywhere in the world. Likewise, the Krue, the people that wizards are part of, can only be descended from the crew of whatever ship brought humans to this planet.
  • 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 goat 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.