frayadjacent: Close up of late-season Gabrielle in black & white (Xena: Gabrielle)
Your thoughts on the worldbuilding in The Steerswoman books. -- [personal profile] frith_in_thorns

 [Please note that, while there isn't a lot in the way of plot spoilers below, there are spoilers for things that many people really enjoy discovering as they read. If you haven't read at least the first two books but are considering it, I'd give this a pass for now.]

I have to admit I haven't given this question as much thought as I could, mostly because world building isn't something I pay a ton of attention to when I read. Not that it isn't interesting or important! But unless it hits one of my specific interests -- how does this economic system work? does their weather/climate make sense? how is race socially constructed in this society (and what does it mean if it isn't)? -- I don't notice a lot. That being said, I was mostly happy with the world-building in the Steerswoman books, and I'll talk a little bit more about why.

First off, the world that we are introduced to in the first book has some pretty cool features, namely the existence of the Steerswomen themselves, but also the general lack of sexism in the broader society. Women are warriors, soldiers, sailors, farmers, merchants, and even wizards. I feel like a lot of fiction, but this is probably more true of film and television than books, create societies that they claim are nonsexist, but utterly fail to actually show that. Having not just the two main characters be women, but also having many of the people from all walks of life that they encounter also be women was incredibly refreshing to read. As was the general respect given to Rowan and Bel by most characters. They didn't have to constantly prove themselves to people who didn't think women could be strong or smart.

(Sadly, the same cannot be said for representation of LGBTQIA characters or orientations, sadly.)

But when I think about the world-building in this series, I don't think so much about descriptions of the landscapes and social structures as I do the slowly unfolding discovery that the world is not what it seems, and in fact the book is not even the genre we thought it was. Of course this has huge ramifications for the landscapes and social structures and technology and everything else, but it plays out differently than in most books I've read because of the way that the reader is discovering things alongside the characters, as well as being given exposition about the world that the characters already know.

Speaking of exposition, the steerswoman, with her emphasis on seeking and sharing information and thinking things through carefully, is a nicely non-clumsy voice for explaining the world to readers. She's kind of like Giles that way. :)

Anyway, I liked how aspects of the world building that initially seemed incidental, such as the units for distance used by different peoples, turns out to be important clues. When Rowan uses miles and feet, I didn't really think anything of it, but later when Bel uses meters and kilometers, the world they are in suddenly seems connected to the world that we are in in a very different way than I originally imagined. The world at the start of the book seems like a less patriarchal version of the sort of mythic vaguely late feudalist or early capitalist Europe that is standard fare in many Western fantasy novels. By the end of The Outskirters Secret, it seems much more likely that their peoples are the cultural descendents of Europe and the people that Europe has colonized.

The reason I put it that way is because while the names of characters and towns suggests western European origin, the range of skin color and hair color and texture that various characters are described as having, along with a complete absence of discussion about race, hints to me that this is meant to be some sort of "post-racial because everybody is mixed race" (or, I suppose, "everybody is mixed race because we're post racial") world. Which is not something I'm super fond of, but I'm glad at least that many characters are described as dark-skinned. And perhaps I'm being ungenerous in my interpretation.

Also, I know this is not important to very many people, but I have to give Rosemary Kirstein a shout out for some very impressive dynamic meteorology in The Outskirters Secret. Her descriptions of what kind of weather would be caused by a very intense heating of a huge strip of land was pretty on point. I secretly wanted a short story where Rowan establishes the first steerswoman school of meteorology after those events! And actually speaking of weather and world building, it is a bit funny that the Steerswomen are documenting every change in every stream but don't seem to have any weather stations. I would think at the very least they could manage a mercury or alcohol thermometer and a wind vane in each town. And I do remember some generally confusing inconsistencies in what kind of knowledge and technologies Rowan's people had, although I can't think of any examples right now.

At any rate, there are still so many unanswered questions in that series, many of which revolve around the origins of Rowan and Bel's societies and how they came to not only lose a lot of technology but apparently forgot that they ever had it. (Along with, of course, what the hell Slado is up to, but that doesn't fall under world-building in my head.) I have to admit that I had hoped that after four books that I know more about the world and its back story then I do, but I also have faith that it will all be explained in due time. Assuming anyway that Kirstein finishes the series. In the meantime, I am thoroughly enjoying the discussion on James Nicholl's reviews. As well as being reminded that I should re-read these books because I've already forgotten a ton.

frayadjacent: Connie Maheswaran on a beach reading excitedly (!reading)
Questions from [personal profile] chaila:

Favorite books you read this year?

Ha ha ha, is this a leading question? The answer is definitely The Steerswoman series, by Rosemary Kirstein. Though I read some others I liked, most notably Gullstruck Island by Francis Hardinge, The Steerswoman really won my heart. It was so full of love and sympathy for its characters. Like I was just swelling with indescribable love for so many of them! Bel, Steffie, Rowan, Zenna, so many Outskirters whose names I can't recall right now...<3 <3 <3

Its world was so refreshingly lacking in patriarchy. It had accurate meteorology! And the journey of discovering what the world was really about has been so great. I loved reading Rowan's thought process and working through the reasoning with her. I can't wait for more! Also I can't wait to re-read all the books; I have a feeling I'll be coming back to all of these. And maybe when I do I'll have more intelligent things to say, mostly I want to flail at them right now. And as I was writing this and thinking about tomorrow's post I started reading James Nicholl's review of The Outskirter's Secret and later (I never did read those reviews when reading the books) and now I *really* want to re-read. Speaking of ...

Are there any books that you always return and reread?

Not really, not since I was a kid. However, I tend to return to the same authors time and again. Almost all of my fiction reading from age 18 to about 24 was Ursula K Le Guin. I lived in a college town with a fantastic used bookstore that had almost everything she'd ever written on its shelves, and between that and the library I managed to get my hands on her entire oeuvre prior to 2004 or 2005 (when I stopped reading her new work). I discarded a few of her early novels -- I think I read Rocannon's World, her first novel, but neither of the two that came after despite having paid money for the trilogy. More shockingly, perhaps, I threw down The Left Hand of Darkness in disgust with her insistence on using male pronouns for characters who had no gender. I never got more than about 50 pages in, and never tried it again. Later I felt partially vindicated when I read an essay where she self-criticises that choice.

But I did reread most of my favorites: The Dispossessed, The Earthsea Cycle, The Telling, The Compass Rose, The Birthday of the World, and A Fisherman of the Inland Sea. The last three of these are short story collections; many of the stories are set in the Hainish universe, which I love and always longed for more of. And the last book contains what's likely my favorite short story ever: "Another Story". And The Birthday of the World contains a story set in the same world as The Left Hand of Darkness, but with a more thoughtful presentation of sex, gender, and pronouns, and it's a wonderful story.

As much as I loved Four Ways to Forgiveness, I was never able to reread it because it's so violent.

I got rid of almost all of my books, including all of my Le Guin, when I moved to Australia. Writing this is making me wish I had her stuff on hand, and it looks like a lot of it might not be available digitally. Oh well.

I've also reread the Harry Potter books and His Dark Materials, but again, only once. And Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are high on my reread list. I have a strong impulse to return to fiction I know I love and an equally strong feeling that I aught to be more open to trying new things; the result is a stalemate where I don't read as much fiction as I used to.

Though part of it is also that I enjoy non-fiction as well. But I'm even less inclined to re-read that. :)
frayadjacent: Xena riding Argo with a greenish background (Xena: riding Argo)
I stopped between The Lost Steersman and The Language of Power while my family was in town, but now I'm back at it.

I'm already almost halfway through The Language of Power and I'm coming to the cold hard realisation that this book is not going to end with any more resolution than its predecessors.  :( I'm loving these books so dearly, but I see now the price for jumping in in the middle of a multi-decade WIP.

That being said, The Outskirter's Secret, which I never really discussed here, has probably been my favorite. Awesome adventure! So much Bel-Rowan hangout fun! Rowan being all out of sorts! Seven thousand mother fucking delightful new characters.

But I did adore Steffie, and Zenna, and the "Demons" in The Lost Steersman, and I am enjoying The Language of Power, especially Rowan and Bel's comfortable dynamic.

Spoilers for The Lost Steersman )

Oh, and while I was digging around to remind myself of Janus's name because I forgot it for a second, I saw from Rosemary Kirstein's blog that she was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. And apparently her treatment seems to have obliterated it!

frayadjacent: Xena on Argo, charging forward & waving her sword (Xena: Charging on Argo)
I finished The Steerswoman and am now reading the second book in the series, The Outskirter's Secret.  And...I kinda feel like these books were written for me!  I love the characters -- Rowan and Bel, obvs, but also a lot of the minor characters too.  Kerstein writes people with such sympathy -- and Rowan's POV is one that's so interested in understanding people, and cultures, and how they tick, and RESPECTS them.  It's just really great.  Also things like the pacing, level of sex and violence, etc, are just about right for this gen-loving squeamish fangirl.

Spoilers for The Steerswoman, vaguely spoilery for the beginning of The Outskirter's Secret )

The slow reveal that This World is Not What You Thought has been an utter delight.  I tend to skim descriptions when I read, and I've been forcing myself to slow down, to actually visualise what's being described, because the world-building that's done through description of objects and scenery is part of the book's awesomeness.



frayadjacent: Buffy with her arms crossed from "Checkpoint", text says, "Power: I have it" (BtVS: Power)
I'm a slow and infrequent reader-of-books, and even then I often forget to post about what I'm reading.  So, it's not Wednesday, even in Australia, but I figure I better post this while it's on my mind.

What I just finished

…if by "just", one means "a week and a half ago".  I read Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge, and it was one of my favourite books in some time.  The main protagonist is a young indigenous person on a colonised island, and the book deals with the dynamics of colonisation really well, I thought.  And it also focuses on people who don't get noticed, and what they might do with that social invisibility, the ways they can exercise power through it, the ways they may come to resent it.  It's beautifully written and I absolutely adored the main character, a clever, adaptable girl whose skills are really well established by her back story.  And it has an ensemble of characters I came to care about deeply, it doesn't treat characters like canon fodder, and it establishes a fascinating setting, both physically and socially. It did go to that The Cycle of Violence Ends Here place in a way that bugs me, but that's my only complaint. 

Well, that and the fact that I can't vid it.

Anyway, I highly recommend this book.

What I'm reading now

The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein.  I'm less than halfway through now. 

I was almost immediately struck by how rare it is in fiction (here I'm including television and movies) to have a female character who is broadly admired and respected for something other than her looks.  There are lots of competent women and girls in stories, but they almost always have to prove themselves, far above and beyond what an otherwise equivalent male character would have to do.  It's so refreshing to have that not be the case in this story, especially for Rowan (the protagonist), but also in general.  While their society clearly has strong class divisions and is in many ways modelled after medieval Europe, it's refreshingly light on the patriarchy.

 I am totally shipping Rowan/Bel.  It's funny, my shipping tendencies are so weak, but apparently I have a button for women with different but complementary abilities and world-views, who respect and surprise and have a general fondness for each other, travelling together.  *heart melts*

I realised a bit of the way through why the Steerswomen are so appealing to me: they're basically an expression of the fantasy of intellectuals who freely share knowledge and, as such, largely live outside the market economy that controls much of the rest of their society. 

Plus they're almost all women. 

Relatedly, I love how they quite readily admit when they're wrong, or when they don't know something for certain.  Not that everyone is walking on eggshells about what they know -- they have vigorous debates and aren't afraid to argue strongly when they are certain, but there doesn't seem to be the kind of egoism that plagues so much of contemporary academia and science, and can make for straight up bad science.  Admitting when you don't know something is a fundamental tenet of intellectual honesty, and I love what an important feature it is to the Steerswomen's culture.

What next/etc

I'm planning to read the rest of the Steerswoman series, but I'm actually a bit confused about what's what.  On Amazon Kindle it looks like the next book is The Lost Steersman (oh I just realised who that's probably about!) and the one after is The Outskirter's Secret?

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