Many Books & Their Reviews

June 2, 2014

Second round of “many books”…

The Steerswoman Series by Rosemary Kirstein

This is an as yet unfinished series of books that remind me a little of Sean McMullen’s Greatwinter trilogy and a little of Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains. They’re all sort of post-apocalyptic and they all have mysterious magic/technology things going on. Kirstein’s books are closer to McMullen’s than Morgan’s, in that the links between “magic” in the world and science are much clearer (and the writing is less grim and dark and grimdark than Morgan’s, though that’s neither here nor there).

And the other thing about these books: they’re better than more or less anything in this genre that’s ever been written. This review by Jo Walton more or less nails it.

I started reading these as part of a conscious effort to read more science fiction by female authors – reading the Elizabeth Bear Range of Ghosts books came out of the same impulse. It turned out to be a great idea, and something I wish I’d thought of sooner. Kirstein’s books are, in some ways, a fairly standard story in this post-apocalyptic mould, but they’re written from a woman’s point of view with realistic three-dimensional female characters. Not the “strong female characters” you see in a lot of fantasy and science fiction that are just another kind of stereotype, but people with realistic motivations, strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears. And, just as the Royal Navy is an ever-present character in Patrick O’Brian’s books, Science, the scientific method and the deep and abiding joy of discovery and understanding are ever-present characters here.

If I had to choose a single “best feature” about these books, it would probably be the characterisation of the main characters (Rowan, the Steerswoman of the title, and her friend Bel). The plot has some of the usual “mysteries within mysteries” and diverting enough galumphing around to show off interesting bits of the world, but the characters are what make the books. And the science, which may sound dry, but it’s anything but. (Actually, there is one bit of the world-building that is really rather interesting and unusual. I don’t know what Kirstein is going to make of it, but the “demons” and their language are pretty intriguing. I’m hoping there will be more of that: they’re among the most interesting of the “mysteries within mysteries”.) Another supremely likeable aspect of Kirstein’s writing and plotting is that the heroes of the books aren’t in any way “chosen ones”. They become heroes by what they do, not by who or what they are.

There are supposed to be two more of these to come, and I’m sure they’ll be good. Kirstein writes slowly (the first book was published in 1989) but these books are what the phrase “worth waiting for” was made for.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

This standalone novel is one of the nicest things I’ve read for a long time. Mostly set in the melting pot of 19th Century New York, it follows the fate of another “odd couple”, a golem and a djinn. The golem Chava finds herself free in New York after her master dies on board the ship bringing them from Europe. He had intended for Chava to be his faithful and dutiful wife, but she has to learn to live life as a free and thinking being. The djinn Ahmad is accidentally freed from his prison by a Syrian tinsmith (I did not know that New York had a Little Syria) but remains trapped within a human form and must find some way to fit in with human society.

The overall plot of the book may be a little schmaltzy, but the development of the relationship between Chava and Ahmad and of their own individual personalities is really great (Chava learns what it is to have a will of her own, desires and goals and dreams of her own, for instance).

The Golem and the Jinni was justifiably nominated for a Nebula Award this year. It’s something quite different from the run of the “urban fantasy” mill and is well worth a look.