Published by Del Rey Books (http://www.delreydigital.com)
Wizards and spells often appear in the minds of readers as fantasy archetypes. In fantasy, magic is often the tool by which the world is understood and manipulated, wizards the people who most often utilize the tool of magic. In Rosemary Kirstein’s The Lost Steersman, magic and wizards are touched upon as part of the larger world; however, their use and appearance are not in the spotlight, rather they are hinted at as greater powers in the world, powers both mysterious and difficult to grasp by ordinary people. Working almost as the yin to the wizard’s yang are the Steerswomen and handful of Steersmen. In Kirstein’s world, Steerswomen are the travelers, fitting into the Ranger archetype of fantasy, they are those who seek knowledge and understanding of the world. As more of the world becomes surfaces before the eyes of Rowan and the reader, Arthur C. Clarke’s old adage of “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” continually comes to mind, setting some of the tone of the world of our heroine, Rowan the Steerswoman. Early on in the novel, Kirstein’s setting, characters and character types would all lead the reader to believe they are reading a work of the fantasy sub-genre of Speculative Fiction. Delving deeper into the novel; however, it is clear all is not what it seems on the surface, and even a few layers below that.
Rowan is in search of the world’s most powerful wizard, Slado, who has been desecrating lands with the all-powerful “spell” Routine Bioform Clearance. As the novel continues, much of what is spoken about wizards, spell, and magic continues to bring to mind Clarke’s previously mentioned quote. Much of what is thought of magic may simply be advanced technology, with concrete explanations. Part of the fun in reading in and experience the world Kirstein has created is delineating the line between Magic and Technology. Magic is a tool employed by Wizards, and science by scientist; often the two do not intercede; however, are the Wizards of Kirstein’s world merely what we would consider scientists?
All of this layered text enriches the main story – Rowan’s quest to find the evil wizard Slado. In The Lost Steersman, she arrives in the town of Alemeth, holding the place of the deceased and former Steerswoman, until a new Steerswoman is appointed to the position. Rowan finds the Steerswoman’s Annex where she will be residing a mess, a chaotic disarray of papers, unkempt logbooks, and notes. The logbook is one of the essential tools of the Steerswomen, charting her daily goings on and any aberrations she notes, to the normal flow of the day. The logbook is essentially the live accounting of the history of Kirstein’s world, a document that holds a place in Archives, the home of the group-proper of the Steerswomen, as well as the Annex, the home of the singular Steerswoman. With all the mess in the Annex in Alemeth, Rowan soon discovers her predecessor, Mira, kept no such journal, leaving no real trace of any Wizard or magic activity in the town. Early on, Rowan strives to convince the people of Alemeth that Mira would not be considered a “good” or effective Steerswoman, in that she ignored nearly all of the duties of her guild. This was a particularly effective tool utilized by Kirstein in establishing not only Rowan’s character and relationship to the people of Alemeth, but informing the reader, new to Kirstein’s work, of what exactly is a Steerswoman – what she stands for and represents.
As Rowan continues her stay in Alemeth, violent demon attacks begin to occur. While demons are not foreign to Rowan, they are rarely seen in the Inner Lands, particularly Alemeth. A familiar face, Janus, assists in disposing of the demons. Attributing the demon appearances to Slado, Rowan, along with Steffie, a young man who assisted Mira and now assists Rowan, soon try to discover the reason for the demon attacks and their continuing, encroaching appearances. Unfolding the layers of the story and where, mentally, Rowan journeys, is an interesting and thoughtful rumination on perception. While this understanding and clear perceptions is what Rowan ultimately strives for, the notion of perception resonates even more fully in the novel, as a whole.
Before reading this novel, I was aware it was one volume, the third in fact, in a larger series. I did not read the previous volume(s) published as The Steerswoman’s Road, an omibus volume including the first two volumes: The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Secret. All that said, The Lost Steersman worked delightfully on its own, standing up very well as a single volume novel. However, Kirstein packs the novel with puzzles, questions and leaves a proverbial taste in your mouth for her work you want to dine in and enjoy again. There is a lot going on in this multi-layered novel, not everything is resolved in this volume. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though, since Kirstein has planned seven total volumes in this saga, she is providing readers with a promising series of books to anticipate. Recommended very highly to readers who have followed the series to this point and as a good starting point for readers new to Kirstein’s work.
© 2004 Rob H. Bedford