Oct 30 2008 12:13pm

Not only science fiction, but more science fictional than anything else: Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman books

If you haven’t read Kirstein’s Steerswoman books I envy you the chance to read them now for the first time.

I’ve been reading them since the first volume came out in 1989. That’s nearly twenty years, and we’re still only at four volumes—three as currently published. The first two volumes, The Steerswoman (1989) and The Outskirter’s Secret (1992) have been republished as The Steerswoman’s Road. That’s the place to start. The sequels are The Lost Steersman (2003), and The Language of Power (2004). I can’t wait for more. I would like the next volume more than I would like anything else at all. I think they have a very good claim to be my favourite thing still being written. They’re certainly in my top five books of all time, and they just keep on getting better the more I re-read them.

The world of the Steerswomen looks at first glance like fantasy. It’s low tech, and there are wizards. The Steerswomen are an organization of people, mostly women, who go around charting the world and inquiring into the nature of things. At the beginning of the first book the heroine, Rowan, is in a tavern trying to find out about some mysterious jewels. Fantasy, fantasy, fantasy. But it’s all a cunning illusion.

As is slowly revealed over the course of the series so far, there’s a science fictional explanation for everything. The wizards are using science that they keep secret, the world they live in is an alien world in the process of being terraformed, and wider things are going on. The reason it is, as Andrew Plotkin put it a long time ago, more science fiction than anything else, is because it’s about the scientific method and how to use it to discover the world.

It’s a very difficult trick to have revelations within a story that mean different things to the reader and the characters, but Kirstein dances over this constant abyss with delicate grace. The books are more than anything about the process of Rowan figuring things out—some of them are familiar to us from our lives, or from science fiction, and that only makes it better. These books really are terrific fun to read.

I’m trying very hard to avoid spoilers, because I’d really hate to spoil the way you come to discover things about the world over the course of reading the books. Let’s just say it’s a much more interesting situation than you’d initially think.

When people talk about intellectual pyrotechnics they usually mean something like Neal Stephenson’s virtuoso passages. Kirstein doesn’t do that sort of thing. Every word serves the story. But there are bits in The Language of Power where things dovetail together so beautifully that I want to cheer.

If you like science, and if you like watching someone work out mysteries, and if you like detailed weird alien worlds and human cultures, if really good prose appeals, and if you can stand reading a series written by someone brilliant who writes excruciatingly slowly but has no inconsistencies whatsoever between volumes written decades apart, you’re really in luck.

Meanwhile, having just re-read them I want more, and I want more now, but goodness knows how long I’ll have to wait.

Sean Fagan
1. sef
I love these books. I hope she continues writing them -- I've heard that she's got portions of the next two books written, but I've not heard any publication updates. Waaaah!
Sandi Kallas
2. Sandikal
Stop it. Just stop it, please. You keep telling us about all these books that I never heard of and that just sound so wonderful. There aren't enough hours in the day for me to read so many books.

Sigh. Add one more to my list.
Evan Langlinais
3. Skwid
I found The Outskirter's Secret in a second-hand shop when I was a teenager, and thought it was brilliant, but never managed to find a copy of The Steerswoman. When I saw they were being republished and that she was writing new ones, I was absolutely thrilled, and she's not disappointed me one jot.

They are high up on my "Highly Recommended" pile.
Paul Howard
4. DrakBibliophile
Bad enough that you recommend good books but the first aren't available in eformat and I'm trying to only purchase ebooks.

Drak Bibliophile (The Ebook Loving Dragon)
scott hhhhhhhhh
5. wsp_scott
This sounds very interesting but a question first.

Does each book depend on the earlier ones? Or do they stand alone? I promised myself a while ago that I would not start any unfinished series after being bitten by Goodkind and Jordan and both of their unending series.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Well, they sort of... each book is a complete episode. They don't end with someone hanging on by their nails. But they're also a story together and if you don't want to start an unfinished series, don't start this one.

This is not, however, an unending series in the same way. Everything contributes to where it is going. She said in 1989 that there would be seven books, and I believe she's still saying so. She's just... not as fast as I want her to be.
Kate Elliott
7. Kate Elliott
May I just totally agree with you about the Steerswoman books? They are so well done. They are some of my favorite books ever.

Also, while I await the next volume, I don't feel bitter that I read the first four and now have to wait. I would say the first four are well worth reading now, and then re-reading.
Kerry Dustin
8. rocalisa
I found The Steerswoman in a second hand bookshop many years ago and for some reason I've never read it. You've inspired me to pull it off the bookshel and add it to the TBR. (Although tracking down the other three books in New Zealand looks to be a challenge!)
scott hhhhhhhhh
9. wsp_scott
Thanks for the answers Jo and Kate, I just wish they both pointed in the same direction for me :)

I suspect I will end up getting the first one and see what happens.

I also agree with #2, you have to stop recommending so many books, I am falling behind already :)
brightening glance
10. brightglance
I love these books. I started with The Outskirter's Secret first, not realising there was a previous one*, and it's still probably my favourite. It's almost a comfort read for the way certain scenes are bound to move me. Trying to avoid spoilers - the lineage recitation scene makes me teary ("And Damita was first"). The journey where Rowan says "I can do what you do", and proves it, and then has to.

In that one we're still a few jumps ahead of Rowan, realising with dawning sensawunda what the real set-up is with the flora of the steppe and the bioform business, then having the pleasure of seeing her figure it out. In later volumes where the puzzle is more strange to us, there are parts we only come to understand when she does.

Or later, perhaps, in my case. I didn't get hold of The Language of Power for a few years after it came out and had to go and look for old rasfw threads and comments on Kate Nepveu's booklog to understand some bits of what happened. Perhaps when the next one finally comes out the discussion will be here somewhere.

I can't wait either for it to come out, but I'm not sorry to have had the pleasure and enlightenment of reading the existing books for all the intervening years.

*I would be annoyed with Del Rey for the several books they published in their "New Discovery" line which were actually the second in a series, except that otherwise I might not have discovered Kirstein back then. Fortunately the second volume stands alone pretty well, but it made the first one weaker for me when I did finally get hold of it.
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Brightglance: Well, you're in Ireland, which was for some reason flooded with copies of The Outskirter's Secret. I bought my copy in Vibes and Scribes in Cork. (Vibes and Scribes also always has used Howard Waldrop, which is just bizarre and inexplicable. Fortunately, as Emmet lived in Cork for a long time, they had a chance to get used to me leaping on things and squeeing.) I've seen it on the shelves in Dublin too. Not one copy ever reached Britain, or the parts of Britain where I was obsessively checking anyway -- but in revenge, or something, no copies of The Steerswoman ever reached Ireland. Book distribution is sometimes crazy.
brightening glance
12. brightglance
Well, I know Forbidden Planet in Dublin at one stage were ordering in all the Del Rey Discoverys as a matter of course. The book buyer was a keen SF reader (not always the case with FP Dublin) and actively looking to find good new writers for his own reading.

But yes, my copy of The Steerswoman took me a long time to find. It was battered and well-travelled when I bought it and may have originally been purchased overseas.

I've just been looking up the covers to check whether the one I have was a complete US import or one of those books that had dollar and sterling prices on the back, and I see the original cover is almost prophetic. I have the other cover, which can be seen here.
Kate Elliott
13. Jim DeWitt
I've been a fan of Rosemary Kirstein for 22 years. I've sung the praises of her four novels on Amazon, in "So You'd Like to" Amazon Guide, and in my own blog. This writing is as good as science fiction gets.

I just wish she'd write a little faster... I worry one of us is going to die of old age before the series is completed.
Kate Elliott
14. bawa
My daughter wakes up every morning; and each time she sees a new blog entry by R Kirstein, she moans: write, woman write! And don't write other things!
And I can only agree with her. Rereading the books while we wait provides additional pleasure, they are so well-written and paced.

My daughter's other great plan is to get all her fans to contribute so she doe not have to do a "day-job".

We have just discovered Jo Walton too, and just loving her intelligent writing.
Kate Elliott
15. BET
Every now and then I get to thinking "Who haven't I read for a long time, and do they have anything new out?" And when I do, Rosemary Kirstein is always one of the names I think of.....and the answer is almost always "no, nothing new." Which is a shame because these really are remarkably good books.

But I'll keep checking....after all, three times so far there HAS been something new, and I do hope we'll get those other two books some day!

And if we don't ever get more, these books will still be worth reading on their own. Each is a great story, and if they leave you wanting more they still more than satisfy individually. In some ways she reminds me of 'Sarah Caudwell' in this regard--not that their books are anything remotely like each other--in that I would so want more, but I'm also so grateful for what made it to print.
T Neill
16. Anarra
In case anyone wanders by, the first three books are out on Kindle. The forth should be out by the end of the month. Go forth and e-read.
James Nicoll
17. JamesDavisNicoll
I am reviewing the new editions, beginning with this one:
James Hogan
18. Sonofthunder
Jo, just wanted to say - thanks much for this "review". I was so fascinated after reading this article(and ensuing comments!), I couldn't help but pick up the first two. And because I'm weird, I wanted the proper original copies...was able to get the first and second books off Abe. They just arrived yesterday, and I am much looking forward to diving into them.

These sounds simply delightful, and my first glance through the pages was promising. So thanks for the heads-up.
Clay Blankenship
19. snoweel
I just discovered these thanks to your recommendation. An intriguing story so far, seeing it start in the fantasy milieu but with gradual revelations/insights of something more going thanks for your review!

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