The Outskirter’s Secret, Rosemary Kirstein (1992)
Review by Ian Sales
The somewhat off-putting title, The Outskirter’s Secret, makes perfect sense to those who have read Kirstein’s The Steerswoman (1989), to which it is a direct sequel. In that book, Steerswoman Rowan, with the help of Outskirter Bel, stumbled across a conspiracy involving wizards and a fallen Guidestar. While initially reading as fantasy, The Steerswoman gradually, and cleverly, revealed itself as science fiction. The wizards had advanced technology, and the Guidestars were some sort of geosynchronous satellites. But the aims of the conspiracy remained a mystery.
In The Outskirter’s Secret, Rowan and Bel are travelling east – through the Outskirts, which are inhabited by fierce nomad tribes – in search of the fallen Guidestar. Unlike The Steerswoman, this book makes no pretence of being fantasy. Instead, it describes a fascinating alien world through which the two must travel to unravel the mystery they uncovered in the first book. And while Rowan and Bel – indeed, all the cast – are extremely well-drawn, it’s the world-building in The Outskirter’s Secret which really impresses. The two books are also notably female-centric. Not just Rowan and Bel, but all the female characters have agency, and the Outskirters are wholly egalitarian. Many genre authors could learn a lot from the way Kirstein treats her cast.
While the Inner Landers have replaced the local ecology with their own – ie, flora and fauna recognisable to us – the Outskirters instead are in constant battle with their landscape. They cannot eat the various creatures, nor the redgrass which carpets the land. Fortunately, goats can eat redgrass, and the Outskirters can eat goats. This means that the various tribes of Outskirters travel about the land, denuding areas – and poisoning it with their own waste – and then moving on. As the land renews itself behind them, so it continues to support them.
Kirstein spends much of the story revealing the culture of the Outskirters, which itself is also a response to the landscape. Rowan and Bel are accepted by one tribe – after helping save a member who was attacked by “goblins” – and travel with them for several weeks. Rowan learns more about the Outskirters, and Bel explains the threat posed by the wizards and their conspiracy to them. At Rendezvous, a meeting of the tribes which occurs every twenty years and is usually signalled by strange weather, Rowan learns more about the workings of the Outskirts and the Face, the inhospitable region to the east of the Outskirts. From information given by the leader of a tribe of Face People, who are normally the Outskirters’ enemies, the steerswoman beging to put together the pieces of the plot.
It transpires that the Guidestars are not only required for the wizards to perform their “spells”, but also serve an important function in the slow terraforming of the world. The fallen Guidestar has caused this process to stop. The way in which The Outskirter’s Secret reveals how the terraforming works is extremely well done, but the reason why the wizards have interrupted the process is left for a later book.
Most of the novel covers Rowan and Bel’s stay with the Outskirter tribe. The steerswoman learns about their culture and about the ecology of the Outskirts. The nomads, their history and their way of life, provide clues, but Rowan figures most things out for herself – as does the reader. This slow process of revelation is one of the novel’s strengths, and Kirstein is clearly good at it. Rowan herself is an engaging character – clever, but not so vastly clever than the rest of the cast that she reads like a Mary Sue. In one telling scene, Rowan realises something important about Fletcher, one of the adopted members of the tribe. He is duelling another warrior – there’s a history of enmity between the two, but the duel is ostensibly for the metal sword wielded by Fletcher. As the two fight, Rowan analyses Fletcher’s fighting style, and comes to a realisation which affects the tribe, her personally, and indeed all of the Outskirter tribes. It also shifts the story into a higher gear, as the wizards promptly strike at the Outskirters and they must force-march to safety. Unfortunately, this does mean the final scene, in which Rowan and Bel find the fallen Guidestar, comes across as a little disappointing – especially since it doesn’t resolve the mystery of the wizards’ conspiracy. But the way the various elements of the ecology – including the Outskirters and Face People – are slowly revealed throughout the book as part of a terraforming process is very cleverly done.
The Outskirter’s Secret is, I think, a better and more likeable book than The Steerswoman – and not simply because it is more overtly science fiction. Though it continues to use the language of fantasy, what it describes is plainly sf, and for a clued-in reader the world-building as described suggests so much more than would be the case for a stock mediaeval Europe-derived fantasy world. When Fletcher is revealed as a “Christer”, who worships a single god symbolised by a cross, that small piece of background information implies something much greater – that there is a link between our world and the world of the two books, that the latter is somehow derived from ours. And since The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Secret are both science fiction, the implication is that their world is an alien planet colonised centuries before from Earth or some Earthly interstellar civilisation. Few authors can imply such depth of universe using such seemingly trivial details, but Kirstein is extremely good at it.
Both The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Secret are currently out of print, but they are still available in an omnibus edition, The Steerswoman Road. Go buy a copy.