The Outskirter’s Secret

Rosemary Kirstein
Steerswoman, book 2

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Having survived the events of the first book, Rowan continues to follow up on the mystery of the gems, fragments of what she now knows to be a fallen Guidestar, one of the four mysterious objects in geostationary orbit above the surface of her world. Where the first book took her around the comparatively civilized Inner Lands, this time she decides to journey to the location where the main body of the Guidestar fell, a location on the far side of the Outskirts, the homeland of her barbarian companion Bel.

There will be spoilers

Culturally, the people of the Outskirts are very different from the people of the Inner Lands; as Rowan realizes this is the result of divergence from a common origin after centuries of adaptation to an environment far more hostile to human life than the comparatively soft Inner Lands. The Outskirters see the Outskirts as their personal enemy. It takes Rowan a while to set aside her preconceptions to realize this is literally true; aside from their goats, there’s not much in the Outskirts that a human can eat unaided and as unpleasant as the Outskirts are, they are a garden of Eden compared to the Face.

We get a much better idea about the ecologies of this world and despite terms like “demons” or “goblins” what we see are not the animals and plants of legend and commercial fantasy but something literally more alien, an assortment of lifeforms that fill the familiar niches of autotroph and heterotroph but whose chemistries and bauplans are like nothing on Earth.

While the Outskirters have an admirable oral tradition, they lack the resources Steerswomen bring to bear on history. Among other things, they tend to think of the way things are – with one notable exception – as the way things have always been, even though they know their traditions have a start date. What Rowan knows from old maps is that the Outskirts move with time; why they move and how turn out to be very important.

All this would be very interesting if Slado the wizard wasn’t out there plotting in the shadows and if this wasn’t a world short on meaningless coincidence (or tenses). There is one aspect of the Outskirter’s lives that changed, the disappearance of a recurring weather anomaly; it is not a coincidence it vanished about the time the Guidestar fell and the consequences have implications for the whole of the human occupied world.

This would be the book where the harmless sounding terms “Routine Bioform Clearance” and “Rendezvous weather” show up.

Although the characters continue to talk about magic as though they are trapped in some sort of secondary universe fantasy, it’s increasingly clear that this firmly science fiction and that the characters are probably living on an alien world whose lifeforms come from a lineage completely unconnected to ours1. Once again, the text is reflected in the original Hescox cover:

Rowan and Bel might be dressed like they might be on speaking terms with the Riddlemaster of Hed but that’s pretty big piece of obviously advanced electronics there and so readers knew going in to look for the scientific underpinnings of the world.

An aside: what possessed Del Rey to make the second book in a series part of their Discovery series? Don’t get me wrong; being in company with Ammonite is no shame but it seems like an odd decision and one characteristic of Del Rey in the early to mid 1990s, prior to their great mid-list purge2.

There’s an incredibly misleading statement near the beginning:

A steerswoman might not know everything, but everything that a steerswoman did know was true.

They may believe this but it’s not actually the case because for all their devotion to clear seeing, the Steerswomen can be just as misled by preconception as anyone. Rowan has a number of moments in the Outskirts where she realizes that her way of seeing the landscape around her leaves her blind or perhaps worse than blind to the things experienced people like Bel may see. It’s not enough be have access to the facts; you also need the correct perceptual and conceptual framework to take full advantage.

While Rowan has no concrete idea why Slado is doing what he is doing, I have a guess but for reasons of spoilers I am going to use the mysterious arts of rot-13.

Sbe gur uhznaf naq gur bgure greerfgevny yvsr sbezf gb fcernq, gur angvir yvsrsbezf unir gb or rkgrezvangrq orpnhfr gur gjb pbzcrgvat rpbflfgrzf ner zhghnyyl gbkvp; pbrkvfgrapr vf vzcbffvoyr. V guvax Fynqb unf qrpvqrq jvcvat bhg n jbeyq’f havdhr urevgntr bs yvsr vf jebat naq vf gnxvat fgrcf gb cerirag vg. Hasbeghangryl vg qbrfa’g frrz yvxr gur greerfgevny ernyz pna or fgngvp; rvgure vg rkcnaqf be vg fuevaxf.

I can see no way this can end in tears and by that I mean Slado clearly means all this to end in tears.

I am very curious to see if in future books we ever get a hint about the motives of the people who set this whole state of affairs up. The origin stories we are told about this world don’t really seem to cover what appears to have happened:

The three legends mentioned are:

“The gods became lonely and created the first humans as company. But the humans wanted to be equal to the gods, so the gods turned against them.”
“Across time, some animals grew more intelligent, and eventually changed into people.”

and

“As the gods went about their doings,” he said, “their power was such that it spilled over, spreading across the worlds. They did not care that this happened. But it caused much damage, and many strange things to occur. The spilled power entered objects, and they became alive: all the plants, the animals, and humankind. But of all living things, only humans could think and know. When the gods noticed this, they hated the humans for being aware, and seek always to destroy us.

None of those really cover “at least sixty generations ago, someone decided to drop a colony of humans onto an alien world whose very biochemistry makes humans burn at its touch, where dozens of generations would pay the coin of short lives and appalling child death rates to buy a patch of land with terrestrial biochemistry.” In fact, since we know the first Outskirters had writing and none of their histories touch on this, it seems reasonable to suppose whoever set all this up went out of their way to make sure no histories from the very first days survived. Which raises the question “why?”

Outskirter’s Secret can be purchased here


  1. Although I still think there is a slim chance that this is the outcome of some The Nitrogen Fix or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind-level ecological mishap, I admit while blackgrass looks like the sort of highly invasive plant someone might create, it’s much harder to explain where the demons and such come from.
  2. I wonder if the long delay between this book and the next one protected Kirstein from being purged with people like Gilliland, Frezza and, I think, Watt-Evans (although he may have left on his own accord, actually. After he shows up to correct me, I will fix this section).

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