The Steerswoman's Road
by Rosemary Kirstein
Ballantine/Del Rey, 2003, ISBN 0-345-46105-3
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
This is an omnibus edition of The Steerswoman and The Outskirter's Secret, originally published in 1989 and 1992. They're books with the outward form of fantasy, and the underlying structure of science fiction.
Rowan is a steerswoman, an initiate of a privileged group of knowledge-gatherers who travel assigned routes through the world, filling in missing details and sharing their gathered knowledge with anyone who asks--provided that they also answer any questions the steerswomen have. Individuals can get themselves permanently ostracized by the steerswomen, but the only group that is collectively under their ban are the wizards, who refuse to share any of their knowledge. Early on in the first book, Rowan meets Bel, an Outskirter, a barbarian from beyond the fringes of settled human habitation. They both have reasons to travel to the Archives, the center of the steerswomen's operations, and decide to travel together.
It quickly becomes apparent that they're being hunted by wizards, and as they work together to survive, what was a purely pragmatic arrangement becomes a strong friendship. And as they learn more about what's going on, it begins to appear that wizards may also be behind the increased incidence of Outskirter attacks on settled communities, and that a wizards' conspiracy threatens everyone.
In the second book, they travel to the Outskirts together, to warn the Outskirter tribes and attempt to create an organized, cooperative response to the wizard threat.
What's apparent to the reader but not the characters is what the Guidestars are, what the wizard or wizards behind their troubles are using against them, and what the underlying problem of their world is. It's an interesting and well-realized world, with the added entertainment value of knowing, or quickly figuring out, things that the intelligent and observant characters aren't in a position to figure out.