This is the book that made me ask on Facebook if it makes sense to talk about an Andre Norton lineage of SF writers. In many ways it’s what you might get if Norton had been a better writer. In others, it’s what you might get if the X‑Men used a draft to gain recruits.
Well, this didn’t play out the way I expected. This was for many years my go-to book for how not to write hard SF but on rereading after a lapse of 20 years I find a book that while flawed definitely has strengths.
We can learn many things from older works of SF and what I learned from this one is that rereading it made me sad.
This will be comparatively short, I think.
As so often is true, I reread an old book to discover what I remembered about it is not necessarily what it is about. I remembered this as a romance set against a plot about overthrowing an oppressive order but that’s not exactly correct.
Near the beginning with a fairly contrived history lesson framed as a good-bye from a beloved teacher to his two priviledged students; this allows the author to drop a fairly weighty infodump about the next twelve centuries. Short version: a combination of resource shortages, ecological crises, plagues and the odd nuclear war bring our civilization down and what replaces it is the Concord, a star spanning feudal society divided into three castes: Elite, Fesh and Bond. This culture is able to provide a high standard of living for the hundred thousand or so Elite and a fair one for the somewhat larger class of Fesh, the trained class who keep the wheels of civilization turning in two different stellar systems but the cost is the brutal exploitation of the Bonds who make up the vast majority of the population.
Reading this, the conclusion I come to is that either I never actually read it – which is sad because I do have a copy – or I managed to completely forget the plot. The books tend to jump back and forth between the civilized Inner Lands and the more wild regions; this is a return to an Inner Land-focused plot. The author also likes to shift between sub-genres from volume to volume; this would be a caper novel.
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.
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
In “the Before Times”, book distribution in Ontario was pretty patchy and while I remember that word of mouth on rec.arts.sf-lovers was very positive about The Steerswoman, I didn’t manage to find a copy of it for my own until 1993, four years after it was published. I can tell this because when I look at the back of my copy it has a sticker from A Second Look Books dated 1993. Which I guess means the author didn’t make any money off me so let’s move quickly on to the next paragraph.
These books are what SF should aspire to be; it is a shame they are not more widely known.
There will be some spoilers.