I've learned not to skip over books in my to-read queue because the books that don't draw my attention, the books that I'm tempted to skip, that I put off because they're not well known and no one I know personally is talking about them, are often the books that take me by surprise and present me with something unique and wonderful that I never knew that I wanted until I opened the book. The Steerswoman is one of those books. The library didn't have it, I couldn't remember who had recommended it to me, and I'd never heard of the author.
And yet. As I found out when I opened it, this book is amazing, different, strange. What at first seems like your usual fantasy setting is inhabited by steerswomen, people who have taken a vow to answer any question that might be asked of them as long as the asker has never refused to answer a question that a steerswoman has posed. Steerswomen are repositories of knowledge, respected, welcome everywhere, and well-educated. In a world of dragons and wizards, they try to understand the world through logic, math, and scientific reasoning.
Of course there's more going on below the surface of the steerswomen's world; a single steerswoman named Rowan and her barbarian friend that she meets on the road, Bel (also female), find that they're being hunted by wizards because the steerswoman's been asking the wrong kinds of questions. Of course a steerswoman can't very well stop asking questions because it's dangerous; she wouldn't be a steerswoman if she did.
I absolutely love the idea of the steerswomen and their tenacious attempts to find truth and understand it in a world with forces that are generally believed to be magic, though whether that's because they actually are magic, or because everyone wants it to be magic. There's something about the way that magic is treated with a scientific eye in this story (and often turns out to be much more mundane than it's made out to be!) that reminds me of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series wherein the dragons were later revealed to be genetically engineered to do what they can do. There's something incredibly pleasant to me about magic that turns out to in fact be sufficiently advanced technology.
I also really enjoy Rowan and Bel's friendship and competency, and the way that the world is diverse, both racially and on gender lines. There are women soldiers! Men's and women's bunk rooms for ship's crew! Both female and male wizards! And no one ever remarks on it because women on ships and in armies and doing of the work of wizards is a normal everyday part of life. Hurray for that! I wish that we saw women in every walk of life more often in fantasy settings. It's fantasy, after all. You can make of it whatever you want. It's just that all too often, authors decide to fall back on lazy gender stereotypes.
Rosemary Kirstein doesn't do that, though. Instead she's delivered a unique gem of a book that I'm thrilled to have discovered. I would highly recommend this book to anybody, especially if you liked McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern.
5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.