Rosemary Kirstein’s The Outskirter’s Secret (reprinted as the second half of The Steerswoman’s Road) is even better than The Steerswoman and made me extremely happy. In it, the steerswoman Rowan and her friend and traveling companion Bel journey to the Outskirts, where Rowan hopes to find the source of the mysterious jewels that brought her in conflict with the wizards.
Exploring Outskirter society and the Outskirts is one of the best things about this book, as they are fascinatingly different from those of the first book. Early on, Rowan and Bel meet an Outskirter tribe that is very stereotypically barbarian, living only by stealing and treating the non-warriors with contempt. And just as this stereotype fully registers, Bel expresses her disgust with their primitive and dishonorable ways. Rowan, and through her the reader, is often reminded of her assumptions about Outskirter culture as the book unfolds and the reasons for Outskirter customs and organization are explored.
One of the fun things about reading these books is that the reader gets to be a steerswoman or steersman too, putting clues together with their external knowledge to assemble a bigger picture than is available to the characters. The Outskirts and their inhabitants eventually resolve into such a picture, and I think an author’s really done an excellent job when three little words (big spoilers, see sidebar for ROT13) — “ebhgvar ovbsbez pyrnenapr” — can crystallize an entire understanding of a world.
The plot and the characters here are also better, more layered, more twisty, and (I think) more exciting; I particularly admire the handling of the title character. The prose continues to be transparent, which was why I picked it up Friday night: my weird prose sensitivity (see prior entries) had recently continued with an inability to sink into the retrospective omniscient of David Anthony Durham’s Acacia, plus I had a headache and was tired. Which last admittedly was not helped by my staying up later than I’d planned to finish this . . . but the lift in my mood from reading a really good book made up for it. All in all, my only complaint about this book is that now I’m torn between finding out what happens next and saving the other two published books for when I really need them.