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Old 05-20-2016, 12:00 AM   #1
WT Sharpe
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May 2016 Discussion: The Steerswoman (spoilers)

The time has come to discuss the May 2016 MobileRead Book Club selection, The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein. What did you think?
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Old 05-20-2016, 01:26 AM   #2
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Author Introduction

Hi, everyone. As the nominator of this book, and as the person who suggested we invite the author, Rosemary Kirstein, to join us, I thought I'd provide just a very brief introduction to Ms. Kirstein. She'll be checking in periodically, and I sincerely hope having her here will facilitate a good discussion, not stifle it. (And she's assured me that she wants to hear honest thoughts and NOT inhibit the discussion.)

Rosemary Kirstein was born, raised, worked, and lives on the East Coast of the US. She's been, variously, a musician, songwriter, folk singer, computer programmer, IT professional, and writer. Her first published book was The Steerswoman, published in 1989, followed by The Outskirter's Secret(1992), The Lost Steersman (2003), and The Language of Power (2003). There are two additional books planned and in progress in the series.

I personally first discovered The Steerswoman in 1989 or early 1990, and read the others pretty much as soon as I could get my hands on them. I proposed the book for this month's Science Fiction category because I firmly believe this is SF, not Fantasy, and because I hoped it would be both approachable and thought/discussion provoking.

If you like to read reviews of the books we're discussing, I suggest Jo Walton's review.

And now, I retire for a bit to let the first round of discussion begin.
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Old 05-20-2016, 12:15 PM   #3
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A very good selection for our Science Fiction month. Yes, it is SF not fantasy. I already had this on my TBR list because of positive recommendations of other MR members. When I realized the original publication date, I wondered how I had missed it before. Reading it now though, is probably better for me because I would have been very frustrated waiting for sequels.

R. Kirstein’s characters Rowan and Bel are great story tellers as is their creator. You are immediately drawn into the story and the action but if you are like me you will also find yourself pausing to consider all those pesky things like ethics, truth and lying, ends vs. means, freedom of information, power, etc. I found myself highlighting a lot.

I’ve been trying to avoid the media election circus but must admit that’s what came to mind when I highlighted the following:
“… The best way to lie is to tell the truth.”
The steerswomen looked at each other in perplexity. Bel expanded on Josef’s statement. “That’s right, you say true things— except, you leave some things out. That way, the person takes what you’ve said and makes his own conclusions— the wrong ones, because of what’s missing.”
Josef gave her an affirming nod. “And that’s your lie. And the second best way is to tell the truth— something obvious, something the other person knows down to his bones— and add your lie onto it, so long as it fits in.”
“The person knows that the part he can check is true, and if the rest makes sense, he’ll believe it,” Bel said.
“And the last good way to lie is to say nothing. Let the other person guess as much as he likes, and when he’s dead wrong,” he said with a smile, “you tell him how clever he is.”

Enjoyed The Steerswoman enough that I went ahead and read the other three installments. Thanks Charlie.
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Old 05-20-2016, 01:25 PM   #4
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I can't help but suspect that some allegorical political content sailed over my head. I didn't see anything I would regard as overtly political, but there was this:

Quote:
"The Blues and Reds hate each other, only the gods know why."
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Old 05-20-2016, 02:04 PM   #5
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In some sense, I'm with Tom here. I pretty much ignored any political overtones, because I was caught up on the science. For me, the highlight of the entire book was Rowan's working out how the Guidestars are falling but never reach the ground. The scientific method laid out in logical detail.

Other high points include the overall world building - the very concept of having a whole group of people whose job it is to walk around and learn while teaching. (Yes, there are other examples in history, but none with quite this flavour that I'm aware of.)

Also, the relationship between Bel and Rowan, and the development of both characters. As some here know, I'm strongly drawn to books that are character driven, and especially when there are strong female characters who are more than just "super-amazons". In The Steerswoman, we have two very different women protagonists who are both multi-faceted. (Both characters continue to grow in later books in the series, but I'm trying to avoid going into anything there.)

Finally, the one thing I really, really didn't like. I thought the scene with Bel extracting information was unnecessary, inappropriate, and detracted from both the story and the character. And I'd actually like to ask Rosemary to justify it, or explain why she thought it was necessary.
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Old 05-20-2016, 02:04 PM   #6
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I didn't intend to imply that the book was overtly political. Just that I found myself thinking about things like what my query responses would be like if Google was run by a steerswoman.
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Old 05-20-2016, 02:08 PM   #7
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Very good, Mims. I didn't take it as you saying it was overtly political, but found your observations of that forcing me to cock my head and look at it differently. EXACTLY why I'm glad to be discussing it here, and why we have a Book Club.
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Old 05-20-2016, 02:49 PM   #8
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I found the book political in terms of the issue of who has the right to control knowledge, even knowledge that could cause harm. There are some interesting mysteries presented, like what these "stones" are. I have not read further books so my thoughts are that they are something from our current world. Obviously electricity has been "discovered" by the wizards, and they probably possess other scientific knowledge as well.
In terms of ethics, it is the ethics of Rowan that I question. She is investigating the stone-origin mystery and has some prior bias against wizards. But why does she feel it necessary (or ethical) to kill so many people? Perhaps we will hear some backstory about wizards in future books, but so far, it is only Rowan and friends that have killed. (Assuming the dragon attack was an accident). The necessity of the mass slaughter of the wizards' servants needs to be explained. Is this war justified?
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Old 05-20-2016, 06:23 PM   #9
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...The necessity of the mass slaughter of the wizards' servants needs to be explained. Is this war justified?
Especially after the conversation Rowan had with the guards in which it was revealed the guards were villagers who were pretty much the victims of circumstances.
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Old 05-20-2016, 11:56 PM   #10
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About that scene

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Originally Posted by CRussel View Post
Finally, the one thing I really, really didn't like. I thought the scene with Bel extracting information was unnecessary, inappropriate, and detracted from both the story and the character. And I'd actually like to ask Rosemary to justify it, or explain why she thought it was necessary.
I’m glad you brought that up, Charlie (it was inevitable that someone would bring it up, actually). The fact is, when I now look back on that scene, I find it disturbing, too. Torture is dreadful, appalling, wrong – and it’s one of the horrors of our modern world.

So, why did the “good guys” use it in my book?

There are a couple of things to consider when asking that question.

The first is: the date.

The Steerswoman was originally published in 1989. That means that I was writing it in 1987-1988. Think back on what the world was like at that time (if you can, that is: some of you might not have been born yet).

We’re very aware of the moral issue of torture, these days. It was the wars in the Middle East, and the events at Abu Ghraib, and the interrogations at Guantanamo that really brought it to the attention of the general public in the US.

But this was before that. Before Abu Ghraib; before 9/11; before the War on Terror. Before Desert Storm. Al-Qaeda did not exist (until August 1988, that is; that’s when Bin Laden formed it). And Guantanamo -- we had some sort of military base there, right?

Sure, we knew torture existed, but it was far away from us (Central America, at that time, perhaps; and Viet Nam historically). But it had no immediacy, no real-world resonance, for the average American.

It was something that showed up in spy novels, or adventure stories. The bad guy catches the good guy, twirls his mustache, gloats, and torture ensues.

In other words: a literary trope. A cliché. And in 1987 that was the entire extent of my understanding of torture. Disconnected from any real-world events.

So, the second thing to consider is: tropes.

One of the things I did in The Steerswoman was to take as many SF and Fantasy clichés as I could -- and flip them, turn them around, work them from the other side.

14-year-old kid with a talent for magic? Got one of them – but he’s not what he seems.

Wizards? Sure. But look closely...

Secret society with knowledge carefully hoarded and shared with no one? Meet the opposite of that: the Steerswomen.

So... what’s the opposite of the classic scene where the villain tortures the hero for information?

Right. There you go.

Actually, there are two ways to turn that around. In one turnaround, the villain wouldn’t have to torture the hero, because the hero immediately spills the beans. And I used that one, with Shammer and Dhree questioning Rowan.

And in the other turnaround... The good guys torture a bad guy for information.

And that’s how that entered the book. Because at that point in my life, in 1987, it was just a literary trope.

Except... I did have trouble writing it. Because (like all of us here) I have a good imagination. So I could not actually do it. I just didn’t have the stomach for it.

I approached that scene so many times, walking up to it, backing away, trying to get it written, failing -- until it finally became obvious to me: I just could not make Rowan torture anyone.

Solution: I had Bel do it. Bel is a violent person from a violent society. It made much more sense that she would do it.

And I had it take place entirely off-stage. We do not see anyone get tortured. We see the lead-up, we hear it in the background, and Rowan cleans up the mess afterward. At no point do we witness any torture.

And yet, we do find that scene disturbing – because in the real world, torture is a horrible thing. And we are smart, and we have good imaginations, and we have simple human sympathy.

Even when the humans involved are entirely imaginary.
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Old 05-21-2016, 12:18 AM   #11
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So many people?

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Originally Posted by treadlightly View Post
...But why does she feel it necessary (or ethical) to kill so many people? Perhaps we will hear some backstory about wizards in future books, but so far, it is only Rowan and friends that have killed. (Assuming the dragon attack was an accident). The necessity of the mass slaughter of the wizards' servants needs to be explained. Is this war justified?
Actually, I think if you look closely, you'll see that Rowan didn't personally kill anyone. She did slice a couple of people...

Also: Why are you assuming the dragons were an accident?

Also: Was the mass slaughter of the wizards' servants justified? No, it was not. But I don't know why you're blaming Rowan for that... it was Willam. Rowan didn't have a real understanding of what Will's magic could do -- and she had no warning that he was going to destroy the entire fortress just to save her.

Keep an eye on Will's moral stance. He's a 14-year-old kid.
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Old 05-21-2016, 12:28 AM   #12
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I'm only 40% through at this point, so I won't join the discussion as yet. I should be finished in the next few days.
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Old 05-21-2016, 12:32 AM   #13
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For me, the central premise sounds intriguing but IMHO it's poorly developed.
I had problems taking the ban of steerwomen seriously, since I kept thinking "barring magic, how would it be enforced? We have steerwomen wandering in the field for years, how would they know if a particular person has been banned? If I'm banned by a steerwoman, and the ban may take years to go into effect from her comrades (if at all), it kinda undermines its threat. An what the other steerwomen receive? Names? Drawings of faces? For well known persons it's easy, but for regular town dwellers sounds tricky.
An besides, the fact that I personally may not receive information is moot, because a group that has as a mission the dissemination of knowledge for hundreds of years will inevitably make common knowledge all that they know. I think it would have been best if refusing to answer to a steerwoman was a social gaffe or something similar.
Also, I think that the escape from the wizard stronghold is full of plot holes, including but not limited to the damage that a black powder explosion causes.
I also find hard to believe that the wizards can maintain absolute secrecy after hundreds of years of employing peasants, and ultimately can't see the reason or benefit of maintaining such wide technological gap. There are so many things that are hinted at, but not justified enough in the story to allow me to 'live' in this world, I simply could not connect with it.
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Old 05-21-2016, 12:58 AM   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by RosemaryKirstein
I’m glad you brought that up, Charlie (it was inevitable that someone would bring it up, actually). The fact is, when I now look back on that scene, I find it disturbing, too. Torture is dreadful, appalling, wrong – and it’s one of the horrors of our modern world.

So, why did the “good guys” use it in my book?

There are a couple of things to consider when asking that question.

The first is: the date.
OK, fair enough. Actually, though, the scene bothered me even when I read it the first time. Which was in 1989. Less then than now, certainly. And certainly there's no way Rowan could have done it. It's simply not consistent with any other part of her character.

On the other hand, I wasn't particularly bothered by the blowing up of the Wizard's Keep. William is a 14 year old boy, and I know what I was like at 14 (which was a very long time ago indeed.) One is reminded of one of my all time favourite quotes from Jamie on Mythbusters - "Jamie want big boom!" However, I was not then, nor am I now, an expert on the explosive power of black powder, so can't comment on the technical accuracy. (And honestly, I don't think it is at all critical to the story, so I don't want the discussion to focus on that.)
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Old 05-21-2016, 10:01 PM   #15
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Quote:
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For me, the central premise sounds intriguing but IMHO it's poorly developed. .... There are so many things that are hinted at, but not justified enough in the story to allow me to 'live' in this world, I simply could not connect with it.
Grey Ram, I think that part of the issue here is that the book is a series, and I'm not spelling out all the details of how everything works in the first volume. Some things will be developed more fully further down the line, in subsequent books, and my plan is to use the opportunities that arise in the natural course of the overall plot to explore or reveal the justifications behind the world-building background and social setup. In fact, the core of the actual story is Rowan herself learning these things.

As the saying goes: your mileage may vary. If you can't engage without more explication up front, well, possibly I'm just not the author for you.

Luckily, there are hundreds of other authors out there, some of whom are really great!

Thanks for giving my book your attention.

Last edited by RosemaryKirstein; 05-21-2016 at 10:26 PM. Reason: Hit ENTER by accident before finishing the post!
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