First, a caution: this is book 4 in a series of tightly connected plots. You can read it first, and it will still make sense, but it will mean more if you've first read Kirstein's other "Steerswoman" novels.
Rowan is a steerswoman, a kind of wandering librarian who is obligated to answer any question anyone asks of her. In return, she expects everyone to answer any question she asks of them. Rowan comes to the city of Donner investigating mysterious events (detailed in the first three books) that have led her to search for an evil wizard, Slado. Years ago, Slado served part of his apprenticeship in Donner, under a wizard named Kieran.
With Rowan is her friend, Bel, an outskirter (a barbarian woman from the Outskirts). Rowan wanders the town looking for elders who might remember Slado. Bel follows Rowan to see if anyone else is following her. Rowan does find people who remember Kieran. Wizards are generally cruel and callous, and everyone remembers Kieran because he had a sudden change of heart and began treating the townsfolk nicely. No one knows why. Bel, meanwhile, discovers that no less than three people are stalking Rowan: a blind beggar, a man and a woman.
Bel and Rowan set a trap for their stalkers one night. To their surprise, they find out that the man and woman were not after Rowan -- they attack the beggar instead. Rowan and Bel go to aid the beggar. They discover to their surprise that they know him. He is Will (an important character in book 1) who has been serving his own wizard's apprenticeship with a wizard name Corvus. Will says he has run away from Corvus and won't say why; Bel and Rowan assume he was physically or mentally abused by Corvus and do not press for details.
Even though Will has left Corvus, he still wants to find Slado, so the three team up. Will has set up a series of charms to disable the dragons which live nearby. Wizards in Donner have traditonally held power because they keep the dragons at bay; the current Wizard of Donner is Jannick. Will and Rowan go to a woodland meadow, where the dragons are hidden. They steal one, hoping to draw Jannick out of Donner so they can break into his house and look for information about Slado.
On their return, they find Jannick has come into town looking for the source of the charms. Rowan, Will and Bel end up in a room full of hostages being tormented by Jannick, who pretends to be worried about a "false steerswoman" he says has been stirring up trouble. The townsfolk keep silent, protecting Rowan. Then Jannick realizes one of his dragons has been purloined and rushes off the deal with that -- but not before laying Rowan and another villager low with a severe electric shock. Rowan barely survives, but the other man is killed.
The villagers pull together and form a conspiracy to help Rowan and Will get into Jannick's house. It works, and they find some clues to Kieran's conversion but nothing about Slado. During this operation, Will is forced to call from help -- from Corvus! It turns out he is still working for Corvus, a big betrayal of Bel and Rowan's trust. Then Slado apparently realizes someone is looking for him. Will and Rowan are forced to flee. Jannick returns moments later, just in time for his house to blow up! Apparently Slado assumed Jannick was asking the questions and Jannick took the blast that was meant for Rowan and Will.
In the end, Will separates from Rowan and Bel, each one planning to continue hunting for Slado with their own resources.
This report prepared by Deby Fredericks
Del Rey, Sept 2004, 14.95, 389 pp
Every two decades, the Guidestar performed a Routine Bioform Clearance sending out massive heat rays in lands past the outskirts that would destroy dangerous creatures and poisonous flora. This can no longer happen because the Guidestar fell out of the sky which means the outsider tribes couldn't move east and would have to travel to the Inner lands to survive. Rowan the steerswoman discovers that the Guidestar was deliberately knocked out of the sky by the use of magic.
The wizard who did this is Slado; Rowan and her friend the Outskirter Bel desperately needs to find him and make things right or war will break out between the two groups. In the port city of Donner, Rowan and Bel are looking through the steerswoman archives and talking to people trying to find Slado, who apprenticed to a wizard who died under strange circumstances. Slado disappeared and the new wizard prevents the dragons from overrunning the town. They meet Will, the wizard Corvus' apprentice and together they devise a plan to enter the wirzard Jannik's house and use his belongings to find out why Slado is moving the world towards war.
This installment of the Steerswoman Saga moves the reader one step closer to finding out what the unseen antagonist is doing and why he is doing it. The protagonist shows the townsfolk that wizards are not invulnerable and they can work in secret groups to throw off the repressive yoke of the wizards. Rosemary Kirsten is a powerful storyteller who has created a series in which each book can stand alone although it is part of a larger saga.
This report prepared by Harriet Klausner