Way back in 2016, I read The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein. I’d heard about it through word of mouth from a friend, and had no idea when I started that it was the first in a series of books. I also had no idea, musing over those first pages, that it would swiftly become one of the books I recommend most to my friends, along with The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.
In my initial review, I was struck most by the book’s casual, unforced feminism, as well as its exploration of the value of knowledge:
Some books pay lip service to the Bechdel Test. The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein takes that well-worn idea, expands it, and tailors it into a compelling mix of fantasy and sci-fi that feels intelligent, sharp, and yet as comfortable as an old leather coat.
Bel and Rowan are fascinating, complex characters with an easy inteprlay, and the central question that The Steerswoman engages with is surprisingly multifaceted: who is allowed to control knowledge? How is it categorized, and how does control over it benefit or hinder society?
I have since read all the available sequels, and earlier this month finished the most recent one, The Language of Power, which came out in 2004. What’s interesting is that the books continually analyze this question from several perspectives. We see multiple cultures, we learn about them and how they interact, and we see how they value knowledge equally but share it in different ways.
For instance, the order of steerswomen fastidiously document everything. While they share knowledge across communities as best they can, they still have centralized archives where every steerswoman’s recordings are transcribed.
The Outskirters are secretive about their culture to Inner Lands inhabitants, but they value bravery and fighting prowess. Most importantly, while some Outskirters like Bel are literate, their knowledge is heavily based on oral traditions. They recite the names of their forebears when inducting new members into a tribe, and when Bel realizes that she needs to unite the Outskirters against an external threat, she composes an epic poem. She travels from tribe to tribe to recite the poem and gain their support for the potential battles that are to come. In the process, she becomes the closest thing to a single unifying leader that the Outskirters have ever had.
These two cultures lie in contrast to the wizards. Wizards, in this world, hoard knowledge. They have magic, but they don’t share it with anyone, and even people who manage to enter their ranks by showing promise are treated as outsiders — it appears that you really have to be born into the wizarding community to be taken seriously, even if you have innate talent.
However, the other way that wizards set themselves apart in this world is their lack of regard for the social contract. The series’ chief antagonist, Slado, is implied to be a sociopath. Almost every other wizard we encounter throughout the series shows either disdain for the common folk around them or a casual, unthinking willingness to inflict harm on others.
This is made even more more remarkable when you remember the social contract built around steerswomen. They travel the land and research both everything and everyone. There are only two iron rules: if you ask a steerswoman a question, she must answer your question truthfully, and if she asks you, you must also be truthful. If you deny information or tell lies, then you’ll be put under a ban, under which no steerswoman will ever answer your questions again in the future.
This is a rule that everyone upholds without question. People contemplate the prospect of being denied a steerswoman’s knowledge with dread. But consider: this is a world without mass automated knowledge or travel. Everything — trade goods, information and people alike — moves at the speed of horses, ships, carts, or feet.
So theoretically, it’s entirely possible for someone to invoke the ban, and then travel far enough to a new place where no one knows the ban is in effect. Steerswomen are few, and itinerant. It’s possible that not even every member of the order knows who is under a ban and who is not. However, no one in their culture takes advantage of this fact! No one even considers the difficulty of sharing knowledge as a potential loophole for getting around the social contract that the steerswomen have put in place.
And this is the thing I have found so astounding after reading The Language of Power. Despite all the wonderful praise this series gets for its understanding of the scientific method, and even for its implicit commentary on violence in fantasy narratives, what strikes me right now, so fresh upon reading it earlier this month, is that the characters we care about succeed because they live in a world with a strong social contract. And the wizards, in their hubris, have no idea that their continual use of rule through fear is starting to backfire on them.
Or, in one of the most famous quotes from Discworld, courtesy of Granny Weatherwax:
“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”Terry Pratchet, Carpe Jugulum
“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”
“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—”
“But they starts with thinking about people as things . . . ”
In The Language of Power, Rowan travels to the city of Donner to find out what happened when a previous wizard there died over 40 years before. She goes there on the slimmest of possible leads, but she thinks that the facts surrounding this wizard’s death could lead her to Slado, and thus potentially to the truth surrounding his plans to destroy the Outskirters.
At first, when she approaches the townsfolk of Donner, they’re hesitant, and she gets only cursory answers. But as she keeps tugging on different strings and taking part in town life, people open up to her. The more they open up to her, the more pieces she fits together, and with her uncanny powers of recall, she’s able to remember names and streets and events in a way that grudgingly gains the townpeople’s respect. But in between, she’s not too proud to shovel manure in an orchard, or sing a ballad in an inn, or express delight in a potter’s drawings and delicate teapots.
It is this simple pleasure that Rowan takes in the presence and skills of other people that saves her, time and time again. When the current wizard confronts the people of Donner at a local inn about the rumours that there’s been a steerswoman sticking her nose into his business, they keep her identity secret from him, even though both she and the wizard are in the same room while it’s happening.
In the end, when Rowan and her allies learn more about wizardly machinations (in both the metaphorical and engineering sense), the town decides to help her out even further by engaging in a collective mission to make the next local wizard’s life a living hell. Even after losing friends, even after knowing what a threat Rowan is to their town, they decide to help her.
That’s the power of a social contract when everyone respects each other and values each other. And I really want to see more fantasy books that display that sort of communal thinking.