Kirstein, Rosemary: (02) The Outskirter’s Secret

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.

7 Comments

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  1. For expectation management purposes, I’ll say that this is the best book of the series, so don’t expect the others to be at this level. (They’re still very good, though.)

  2. Mike: expectations managed, thanks. Though I was doing that anyway because I know that they were written after a long hiatus, which is a tough thing to manage.

  3. I particularly admire the handling of the title character.
    Really? [admin note: ROT13’ed for possible spoilers] Vs lbh’er guvaxvat bs jub V guvax lbh’er guvaxvat bs, uvf jubyr punenpgre vf onfrq ba gur snpg gung ur vfa’g ernyyl na Bhgfxvegre. Crefbanyyl, V guvax guvf obbx fubhyq unir orra gvgyrq Gur Bhgfxvegf’ Frperg.
    The next book is probably my least favorite of series (because of its title character), but it has the most powerful scenes and best quotable lines.

  4. Konrad, I think your comment is too close to a spoiler and I’ve ROT13’ed it.
    Also, I disagree with you and I think the book does too (REALLY BIG spoiler) pbafvqrevat gur shareny ur’f tvira.

  5. Sorry. But I still think my title is less of a spoiler than the given one, since anyone who has read the first book will think they already know what my title is referring to.
    As for my other complaint, I was referring to something (IIRC) revealed when we met him, not the spoiler you seem to be thinking of. But my memory may be faulty, since I don’t remember the bit you rot13ed, just its cause. I should add this series to my re-read queue.

  6. It wasn’t your proposed title by itself, just the prior sentence and then the additional context.
    And yes, I understood what you were referring to.

  7. As for highpoints, I think _The Language of Power_ is just as good as _The Outskirter’s Secret_, though in a different way.
    Want more of these ASAP!

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