Friday, 3 March 2017

The Steerswoman

(February 2017)

Continuing what has become an impromptu ‘Competent Women’ season here on this is how she fight start, we have the first volume of Rosemary Kirstein’s long- and glacially slow-running Steerswoman series.

There is, at least on the surface, an almost bracing solidity about this book. A secondary world fantasy with no bells and no whistles. There are barbarians, there are dragons, there are wizards. Wizards, note. Not mages, or thaumaturges, or somethingmancers, just honest to goodness straight-up wizards with the magic and the towers and the pointy hats*. They have teams. Teams of wizards. Teams called Blue and Red. Why? No reason. Why would you not have competing wizards on blue and red teams? The prose, it goes without saying, is entirely unexceptional.

The protagonist is called Rowan, which is a good, sturdy, name in the way women’s names taken from woody plants generally are (cf. Hazel, Olive, and indeed Rosemary), and she is a good, sturdy character. She’s a steerswoman, which is a kind of roving minstrel-cum-scholar; someone who wanders this late-medieval world dispensing advice and wisdom while gathering as much of them as she can herself. She will answer truthfully any question posed of her, and anyone she asks must do the same, or find themselves shunned by all steerswomen everywhere. They seem to be rare enough and the knowledge they carry valuable enough for this to be a viable sanction.

At the start of the book we learn of Rowan’s interest in some scattered ‘jewels’ and she picks up an ‘outskirter’ (barbarian) travelling companion. It turns out that her investigations have brought her to the unwanted and violent attention of one or more wizards, and she then heads back to the headquarters of her order to figure out what to do next. This first half is very methodical, because Rowan is very methodical. It’s only really at the halfway point, when she sets out again to meet the wizards head-on and we meet a second PoV character through whose eyes we can view her, that we start to see enough of Rowan’s rough edges for her to become more than a cipher, for her to become interesting in her own right. Prior to this what little emotional impetus is provided by the ourtskirter, Bel, who exists mainly to be a conveniently ignorant proxy for Rowan’s exposition, but also, thankfully, has enough vim about her to keep things moving along nicely.

The new PoV character is Will, a blacksmith’s son who has been experimenting with magic and is now keen to become a wizard’s apprentice. His appearance marks the point at which things really kick into gear, as in addition to the emotional depth his perspective brings to Rowan, it also becomes clear that his brand of ‘magic’ is actually fairly quotidian. Rowan’s method then gets scaled up in significance, and her deliberations on what we might recognize as, among other things, orbital mechanics, start to make sense as parts of a much bigger picture. These are not just the intellectual meanderings of a sensible woman with sensible shoes**. These are, indeed, the first stirrings of a renaissance, and it would seem that the ‘wizards’ are already pretty well née as it is.

I’m not entirely sure if the work(wo)manlike nature of the first half of the book was a deliberate attempt to throw the second half into sharper contrast, but that it does. After the first few dozen pages I’d reconciled to myself to The Steerswoman being, if not a slog, than a fairly prosaic ramble: a pleasant enough form of exercise, but something that would neither scale the heights nor plumb the depths. Even now I’d hesitate to attach any form of superlative to it, but as the first in series there’s certainly enough here for me to have acquired the second volume already.

*There may or may not be pointy hats.
**There definitely are sensible shoes.

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