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The Steerswoman's Road    by Rosemary Kirstein order for
Steerswoman's Road
by Rosemary Kirstein
Order:  USA  Can
Del Rey, 2003 (1989)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In The Steerswoman's Road, just as Sharon Shinn does in her Sammaria series, Rosemary Kirstein gives us science fiction masquerading superbly as fantasy. This omnibus edition includes a reissue of two previous books - The Steerswoman and The Outskirter's Secret.

Rowan belongs to an order of Steerswomen (including a small number of Steersmen as well) who roam, mapping new territories and collecting facts, their objective to 'add up learning, to accumulate it past your own lifetime.' The order was originally shaped by the needs of sea travel for 'precision in knowledge, adaptability in action, clarity in thought, and always the need to know more.' Ask a steerswoman a question and she must answer. Lie to a steerswoman or refuse to answer her, and her order will ignore your questions forever.

In the first of the two books, The Steerswoman, Rowan is pursuing what seems a minor investigation, of the origin of unusual jewels. When she notices that Outskirter Bel has an entire belt of them, she questions her. They travel together and become friends, despite their differences. Though she lives in a society dominated by wizards, Rowan is not sure she believes in magic, trusting rather to logic and deduction. But it soon becomes clear that wizards are interested in Rowan's pursuits, when they send assassins and magical attacks against the duo.

After consulting her peers at the Archives of her order, Rowan continues her travels in disguise. Soon a young man joins Bel and Rowan. Runaway Willam - 'a tall boy, bigger than his years, strong for his age, more intelligent than his peers' is a blacksmith's son with good reason to hate wizards, and with magical abilities that he's figured out by dangerous trial and error. As wizardly attacks continue, Rowan executes an audacious plan that takes her into a wizard's stronghold. As this first book ends, she finds some answers and Willam earns an apprenticeship.

In The Outskirter's Secret, Bel and Rowan have learned that their enemy is Slado, who directs the wizards. They travel secretly into barbarian territory in search of the place where a Guidestar fell and Bel's jewels were found. When Rowan looks at her friend she sees 'a small, compact shape of bone and muscle, fur and leather, poetry and violence', one who teaches her how to survive in this strange environment. As they travel with an Outskirter tribe, Inner Lander Rowan learns to love the Outskirts despite its alien appearance and constant danger - from plants that bite, insects that burrow, violent goblins and demons.

Bel, Margasdotter, Chanly takes on a mission of her own, to alert the tribes to their growing danger from Slado. Rowan is attracted to Fletcher, a tribesman with an unusual past. Life is cheap in these lands. Despite a battle with the cannibalistic Face People and a serious betrayal, Bel manages to convey her message and enlist support for future joint action. This episode ends as their group flees a cataclysmic event, and Bel and Rowan affirm their determination to defeat the enemy.

It's a wonderful series - an imaginative world and plot that's well detailed and filled with engaging characters and thrilling action, with quite a few science lessons thrown in for good measure. The epic continues with The Lost Steersman - can't wait!

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