Back in junior high, I not only arranged my books by publisher, I bought them by publisher—at first, I’d only buy Del Rey books, I eventually branched into Avon, Ace, and Bantam, and I held out on Tor and Baen for a long time. So when Del Rey introduced their “Discovery” line, a sub-imprint selling books by new authors for a low-ish price, I was unsure if it was legit to buy. I mean, it had the good ol’ Del Rey logo, but it had added a bit of a starburst to it, and it didn’t look quite the same. Quite a dilemma.
After a bit of waffling, I decided that it was close enough—and that, beside, I’d like to read books by new authors. So I picked up the Discovery books as they came out. And then I read a few and realized that if Del Rey really thought these particular authors were all that, they’d have introduced their books in full-price hardcovers, not cheap paperbacks. So, not up for reading a bunch of not-all-that-great first novels, I let the rest of them languish unread on my shelves.
When I got to college and discovered the Internet, I heard some praise for Rosemary Kirstein. Well, hey, one of my Discovery books was her The Outskirter’s Secret, so I could read that. Except for one thing: It was a sequel. Yes, that’s right. Del Rey set up a line devoted to finding and promoting new authors, and then published a sequel in it. And of course, it was many years after the book had been published, so the first book was well and truly out of print.
Well, all good books come back to print in time, and Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman was republished last month, in an omnibus with The Outskirter’s Secret, so I’ve finally got a chance to read it.
The verdict: It’s pretty good. It’s one of those SF-dressed-as-fantasy stories, where the “magic” is pretty transparently technology; those can be irritating if done badly, but when they’re done well, they’re one of the subgenres for which I have a soft spot.
And Kirstein does it well. Her world is mostly pretty generic, but has a few interesting twists to it, most notably the steerswomen. They’re an order dedicated to preserving and diffusing knowledge; a steerswoman must answer truthfully any question placed to her—but can also expect a truthful answer to any question she asks (anyone who refuses to answer a steerswoman’s question can never get an answer from any steerswoman again). This, of course, places them into conflict with the secretive, knowledge-hoarding wizards. And when the titular steerswoman stumbles onto a mysterious find… well, you can see where this is going.
The plot is complex enough to be intriguing, the protagonists (the steerswoman is joined by a barbarian warrior) are enjoyable, and the writing is far more assured than you’d expect from a first novel. There is a bit of a “been there, done that” feel, because of how faithfully this follows the subgenre conventions; but the ending sets up changes that should make the sequels more unique.