This picks up a thread mentioned in passing in the first book; Janus, one of the few male Steersmen, has resigned from the order and because he will not say why, has been placed under the Ban. Until he explains himself, no Steerswoman will answer his questions.
This would seem to be fairly academic because Janus has also vanished. In a backward world like the Inner Lands, word travels at the speed of feet (or if you are rich, horse) and it’s easy enough for someone to vanish if they want to.
Rowan’s quest to work out what the wizard Slado is up to takes her to the Annex at Alemeth, where she discovers to her disgust the previous Steerswoman in charge of the place, the late Mira, has allowed the back-up library to decay into a disorganized pile of rotted tomes. The information she wants may be in the pile but it will take ages to track it down.
[I forget now how much of my time as a shelf pixie at Dana Porter Arts Library was taken up walking the stacks looking for misfiled books but it was a significant fraction. The whole section about re-indexing a scrambled library speaks to me]
As it turns out, Alemeth is also where Janus went to ground and while he seems happy to see his old friend Rowan, he isn’t going to open up to her if he can help it. He reluctantly tells her that he resigned because of cowardice; it seems like there’s more to the story than that but he’s not sharing. It also becomes clear that even if they were friends in the past, something significant has changed and they are not friends now.
Rowan soon has more important things to worry about. Demons, apex predators the Outskirters feared enough to avoid if at all possible, begin venturing into Alemeth, something that has never happened before. Demons come by their name honestly and the carnage that follows their arrival is pretty horrific. Each wave is worse than the one before. Since wizards are known to control the behavior of monsters like dragons, it seems reasonable that one is behind this; past experience suggests it must be Slado, trying to keep Rowan from finding something in the archives.
Things take an unexpected turn when Janus betrays a familiarity with demon behavior. The demons eventually overpower him and carry him off into uncharted territory. Rowan and her companions set out in pursuit, hoping to save Janus or at least capture the wizard responsible for ordering the demons to attack.
What follows is fascinating, a lengthy exploration of an alien ecology. Unlike certain other books I got into flame-wars over, the non-terrestrial organisms in this demon-haunted world are only in very loosest sense analogous to ones we know in this era on Earth. When Rowan first cuts demons open, she finds organs so unfamiliar their functions are largely conjectural; only observation allows her to assign functions. Their behavior is similarly alien, although careful observation can allow a human to work out why it is they do what they do.
As so often happens in this series, Rowan experiences moments of blinding insight and as seems to be the pattern in these books while part of her epiphanies are wonderful, the implications are appalling (although consistent with what we have seen before). The basic problem is the two ecologies on this world are mutually hostile and for one to grow, the other has to shrink. Adding in the detail that there are thinking entities on both sides only makes the issue worse because the way this is set up, peaceful, stable coexistence is not obviously one of the options.
This is a weightier book than the first two or it would be if it was on paper and not an ebook. The Steerswoman is about 100,000 words, The Outskirter’s Secret is about 140,000 words. The Lost Steersman is longer yet at 162,000 words. I believe it is no coincidence that the more familiar-seeming the setting, the shorter the book; what drives the length is the need to convey the alien ecology Rowan is exploring in the particular book.
I meant to mention the prose in previous reviews; it’s deceptively simple appearing but very effect at conveying information. Take for example this description of a demon from early in the book:
The creature stood just over five feet tall: a gray-mottled vertical column of flesh, strange muscles shifting beneath the skin as it raised first one, then each other low-kneed, flat-footed leg, its body weaving in a circular motion as it walked. Its four arms splayed out, horizontal from the top of its body, then angling downward at sharp-jointed elbows. It had no head, no visible face or eyes, no apparent difference between front or back or sides.
With this one from after Rowan has gotten to know the species better:
Tan was making, Rowan realized, not many statements, but one great statement, one single thing that grew before the eyes of the crowd, each watcher waiting for the next idea to be added to the rest, linked to the rest, made part of the whole.
Imagine it, Rowan thought: to say something and have it stand before the eyes of all, to be judged by all, as one unified expression.
In between those two moments the demons go from something described in fairly abstract terms to entities whose sex and identity Rowan understands. They have also gone from wandering monsters, inhumane forces of nature presumed to be under the control of Rowan’s unseen foe, to people and this is reflected in the words Kirstein chooses.
I’m generally reading books more typical of modern F&SF before and after the Steerswoman books and the contrast in basic competence is pretty stark. There is a lot of awful prose out there and it doesn’t seem to be an impediment to sales. That’s damning this with faint praise; the prose is more than merely competent but in a way that does not draw attention to itself.
The Outskirter’s Secret came out in 1992. The Lost Steersman was published in 2003. In between those two dates lamentations from those who feared we’d never see how the story came out could be heard across the land. While four books are too small a sample to draw conclusions, watch in awe as I do it anyway: publishing her books in pairs with about a decade between pairs seems to be a thing that Kirstein does. I note that about a decade has passed since the most recent book was published.