Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

20 Mar 2019, 10:28 a.m.

Steerswoman Series

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2019 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

If you have never read Rosemary Kirstein's "Steerswoman" book series I envy you because I just read them and it was such a thrill ride. Here's the first chapter of the first book as a free online read; you can buy the existing quartet as paper or ebook via her sidebar.

I need to concentrate on client work and Art Of Python prep and backlog-grinding right now, and yet I heard about these books and started and finished all of them within two weeks -- it was that immersive kind of reading that took me back to being a teenager, grabbing 5 spare minutes to get through a few more pages while walking from the subway to my destination. I was living this Nathan W. Pyle comic.

To quote the blurb/marketing copy for the first book:

If you ask, she must answer. A steerswoman's knowledge is shared with any who request it; no steerswoman may refuse a question, and no steerswoman may answer with anything but the truth.
And if she asks, you must answer. It is the other side of tradition's contract -- and if you refuse the question, or lie, no steerswoman will ever again answer even your most casual question.
And so, the steerswomen -- always seeking, always investigating -- have gathered more and more knowledge about the world they traveled, and they share that knowledge freely.
Until the day that the steerswoman Rowan begins asking innocent questions about one small, lovely, inexplicable object...
Her discoveries grow stranger and deeper, and more dangerous, until suddenly she finds she must flee or fight for her life. Or worse -- lie.
Because one kind of knowledge has always been denied to the steerswomen:

Friendship, adventure, science, kind people finding stuff out, wonder, humor, dramatic irony, close observation that feeds into the protagonist's mystery-solving, skill-sharing, road trips, conversations about problem-solving and "what the heck is going on here" that feel like rooms I've been in.... it's wonderful and I in particular want to call your attention to this series if you fit any of the following criteria:

  • You like The Good Place
  • You enjoyed Andreas Eschbach's The Carpet Makers
  • You gave up on Stross's Merchant Princes series because you didn't care about what would happen next
  • You are a technologist or scientist (here's an essay she wrote about the series, noting that we are all discoverers)
  • You enjoy stories about women's friendships
  • You enjoy stories where people of all genders and races intermingle without their genders or races getting in the way of what people think they can do or be
  • You enjoy stories where some characters have physical disabilities and are portrayed realistically and respectfully
  • You find that a lot of scene descriptions in fiction, especially fantasy, feel unmotivated and slow the story down (most of Kirstein's scene descriptions serve character and plot!)
  • You think of yourself as someone who has historically preferred science fiction to fantasy
  • You've vaguely heard about these books but thought they were out of print (recently Kirstein got the rights back and reissued them!)
  • You're hungry for a story where the protagonist has the analytical and observational skills of a scientist-detective and is not a misanthrope

If you have not read these books, AVOID SPOILERS AND READ THE BOOKS IN ORDER, starting with The Steerswoman. Avoid also the paperback covers from the original print run as they contain spoilers!

If you've already read these books, I offer these links for your delectation:

Huge thanks to Zack Weinberg for recommending these as excellent fluff.


13 Aug 2021, 16:42 p.m.

Oh I loved this series of books. Finished reading them last year I think, such a great series.

13 Aug 2021, 16:42 p.m.

Great news about RK reissuing them; I've read (and reread several times) the first two, but not yet caught up with the later ones.

One of my most treasured moments as a reader was realizing that, though the stories read like fantasy, they aren't; they're SF, and hard SF at that (I'm a both/and SFF reader). Though that was many years ago, it still never fails to tickle me.