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The Lost Steersman
Rosemary Kirstein
Del Rey, 421 pages

The Lost Steersman
Rosemary Kirstein
Rosemary Kirstein's previous books include The Steerswoman (1989) and The Outskirter's Secret (1992). Both of the have been re-issued from Del Rey in an omnibus volume, The Steerswoman's Road (2003).

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A review by Sherwood Smith

There are numerous books published as science fiction, containing sturdy SF tropes such as hyperdrives, sexy tech, futureworld societies, that really arise out of a fantasy dreamworld. Rosemary Kirstein is one of those rarities whose books are marketed as fantasy, and contain such sturdy fantasy tropes as wizards, magic, and low tech levels that are nevertheless built on a science fictional substrate.

What's more, they are very good stories.

The Lost Steersman begins with a letter from Rowan to the Prime Steerswoman, detailing her journey and incidentally filling in the reader on a lot of what has gone before. The first clue that this book is not your standard fantasy fare is Rowan's warning that the "Routine Bioform Clearance" spell has been used. Rowan is on her way to the last Annex to get the latest data from the Steerswoman Archives before she continues on.

At that very Annex in the town of Alameth, the old Steerswoman, Mira, has died, and two young people, Gwen and Steffie, are busy cleaning up the disgusting mess she had left. While they are in the midst of this task, a Steerswoman arrives, named Rowan, who desperately needs information from the Annex archives that Mira was supposed to tend, so that she can continue her pursuit of the mysterious wizard Slado.

Rowan finds herself stuck in Alameth due to the fact that the irascible, beer-swilling Mira had neglected the archives to such a degree that most of them still sit in their shipping boxes, worm-eaten and rotting. She sets herself to sorting and reading; meanwhile, one good thing occurs, she finds her old friend Janus in town. He had attended the Steerswoman academy with her, long ago, but since then had rescinded his oath when he would not answer truly a question put to him by a Steerswoman. For that is their primary rule, that a Steerswoman (or Steersman) must answer any question put to them.

Gradually it seems that Janus's reappearance in Rowan's life is a mixed blessing at best. His confession concerning his abandonment of his oath raises more questions than it answers, and when he asks her questions, she cannot answer due to the Steerswoman Ban. Meanwhile the locals have to go on living, especially tending to the silk trade, and in the midst of everything some shockingly creepy monsters appear, waving their four arms and shooting sixty-foot spurts of a poison that melts flesh and muscle, leaving victims to die a miserable death.

The monster attacks rouse the entire town, and at first they think Rowan is to blame, for nothing bad had happened until she appeared. In one especially terrible attack, Janus, who seems to have a mysterious ability to ward the monsters, is captured and dragged off, and Rowan goes in pursuit.

Behind her, the new Steerswoman Zenna appears, and in no time sets everyone straight about Rowan. And then she and Steffie set out on a rescue mission after Rowan.

The novel begins with humor, compelling character, and a steady succession of good story hooks. The tension escalates until Rowan's trip alone into the dangerous lands of the monsters, which turns into one of the best alien-encounter sequences I've read in a long time.

It has been over ten years since the last Kirstein book, which makes it tough to build the readership this author deserves. The Lost Steersman does not answer the biggest questions, and as such might frustrate dedicated readers (though not enough to keep them from enjoying the story); new readers are more likely to find enough closure here to be intrigued into delving into the previous volumes.

Kirstein's work stands out not just because of the hints of a meticulously thought-out world underneath the talk of magic and wizards, but because of her superlative writing skills. The Steerswomen have invented, pretty much on their own, the scientific method. The world itself is fascinating, filled with anthropological curiosities -- like the spider-wife and her strange, creepy subculture. The characters stand out because Kirstein never settles for the standard genre reaction-markers that are so easy, so invisible, yet in the end do not make for memorable characters: no one's eyes flash, no one pierces another to the very core of their soul with a single glance. No one discovers swords of destiny, or is gifted with megapowers as a direct result of being abused. Check out Steffie, a young man of about twenty who, on his own, struggles to master the fundamentals of logic without having been given a single analytical tool by an easy-going family or community. Even Mira, who is dead at the beginning of the novel, takes distinctive form in the conversation and memories of the people of Alameth. Rowan, Zenna, Janus, Steffie, all linger in the mind long after one reads the last page, leaving one hoping quite strongly that it will not be another ten years before their adventures are continued.

Copyright © 2003 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at

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