The Steerswoman panel at Readercon


Now, this is the second time that there’s been a panel discussing my books; and yes, there were significant differences between the two.

The panel at Scintillation (you can read about it here) was, in essence, celebratory; the panelists, and the audience, focused on sharing the things that they liked about the books.  It was wonderful to hear, and so heartwarming.

The Readercon panel, on the other hand, was more analytical.  The panelists (Yves Meynard, Kate Nepveu, Victoria Janssen, Cecilia Tan, Elaine Isaak AKA E.C. Ambrose) are writers themselves, and they they came at the discussion from that direction.

And of course, the biggest difference: I was not on the panel myself this time.

Nope, I was in the audience.  Just a fly on the wall, don’t mind me, nothing to see here, la, la, la —

Of course everybody did see me right there. Heh.  And the very first thing Kate Nepveu, the moderator, did was address me directly and say that I was absolutely forbidden to speak — until the very end of the panel, when I would be given five minutes for follow-up and/or rebuttal.  She wanted the panelists to speak freely,  as if I were not there, and discuss the things that they wanted to discuss, good, bad, or whatever.

Excellent, thought I.  Should be fun.

Because, as it happens, I have what I can only describe as a very clear-eyed view of my own work.

I know this isn’t true of all writers, or of artists in general, actually.  We creative types are notoriously sensitive — or contrariwise, absolutely convinced of our inherent superiority!   Some of us will spin into  abject misery, binge-eating rocky road ice cream, if you say that our story is not quite perfect; and certain others (naming no names here!) will go into paroxysms of outrage and spout prodigies of vitriol if you happen to disagree about the Oxford comma.

Me? Not so much.  Why?  Beats me.

Possibly it’s really just a variation on the egotistical end of the axis.   But generally, my reaction to criticism falls in three categories:

  1. You’re wrong, and here’s why.
  2. You’re right!  Wow, did I ever screw up on that one!
  3. Your complaint actually reflects merely a matter of personal preference; and we could have a very interesting discussion about why we differ on the issue.

But the most interesting thing about all kinds of critical analysis — positive and negative — is this: someone cared enough about your work to give it deep, careful thought and come up with real opinions.  That’s always a compliment, really, and always gratifying.

And they did say many things: compliments, speculations, and yes, a few complaints.

I tried not to react when they brought up the speculations about what was what, and where the story might be going.   But I found it fascinating to watch them go back and forth about the possibilities.  I loved hearing their reasoning, seeing them pick up cues and clues, turn them over, subject them to scrutiny, and even surprise each other.

I can’t put down everything that was said, but for highlights:

Yves Meynard paid me one of the loveliest compliments ever, as he explained to the audience how much he loved my prose.   Not the sort of thing you generally find in fantasy, he said; beautiful but not flowery,  each word well chosen, and flowing like music.  And also many other complmentary things, which my humility (yes, I do have some) make it impossible for me to quote in detail.

But the one that got me most was luminous: he said that my prose was luminous –  and frankly, when you bury me please use that as my epitaph.  Her prose was luminous.  In fact, feel free to leave my name off the tombstone entirely.  Her prose was luminous would be enough.

Victoria Janssen pointed out that within the overall plot, the books also hit a lot of the fantasy-trope plot lines. I was particularly pleased by that she caught that, as it was absolutely intentional on my part.

They all appreciated how the books present logic, reason, and discovery as joyful acts; and again, exactly what I was trying to do, and what I’m most glad of when people relate to  it.

Kate Nepveu noted that the meetings between cultures were not simplistic, and included some actual friction.

Cecilia Tan connected my books to other works that were SF with a fantasy feel — Bradley’s Darkover and McCaffrey’s Pern  books, for example.  And she noted that this was an approach that women sometimes turned to in the past because SF had more respect than fantasy did.

Elaine Isaak pointed out that having the reader know more than the characters of the story do puts the reader in an interesting position.  The readers themselves participate in the worldbuilding, providing  information about the world that the characters might not notice.  And it creates an interesting tension: the reader sees it — will Rowan?

And one of the audience members pointed out the inherent, matter-of-fact equality in the background of the books.  Any role, any job, might be held by a man or a woman.

And as for some complaints…

Kate pointed out  that the books depicted PTSD with both Fletcher and Janus, but that Zenna seemed unaffected by her own experience.

Victoria Janssen noted that ASL (or something like it) appears, but there seemed to be no Deaf Community.

And Kate says that she makes it a point to warn people about the torture scene in the first book… and that Janus’ name is just too “spot on.”

And eventually I did get to my 5 minutes of reply and rebuttal.  The very first thing I did was thank them all because: wow, that really was fun.  Five really sharp people turning their brilliant brains on my books?  What’s not to love?

As for rebuttal:

I had to point out to Kate that, strictly speaking, there is no actual torture scene.  There’s torture, but no scene.  It all takes place out of sight, off-stage.  Still, one can see why it would be disturbing that the story refers to it, and Rowan can hear what’s happening, for part of it.

And Janus’ name?

Absolutely correct.  Worst name ever!  I explained what happened:

I was writing first the draft of  The Steerswoman, and I came to the point where I had to plant a reference to that steersman who had quit the order.   He had to be referred to now, in Book One, in order to pay off in Book Three.

However, I hadn’t decided on a name for him yet.

No problem, I told myself.  I’ll just stick something in here, a sort of placeholder, so can move on and finish the rest of the book.   Pick a letter –  how about “J”?  Sure.  What starts with J?  I dunno — Janus?  Right, good enough,  I’ll go back and fix it later.

And… I did not go back and fix it later.  I basically forgot, until it was just too late, and the book was in print.

Yeah, I was kicking myself when I realized… Not only is the name too “on point,” as Kate said, it was also  too similar  to the name of the wizard Jannik.  Thus breaking my own rule to never have character names that resemble each other closely, as it is very unkind to  the reader.

Well.  At least Janus and Jannik never appear in a scene together, or get mentioned in the same breath.   And this is also why I always pronounce Janus with a long “a,” just for my own peace of mind.

(By the way, I since learned that the correct thing to do when you need a placeholder is to insert TK — which stands for “To Come.”   Then you can do global search for TK when you want to fix the placeholder; and if you forget the editor and typesetter know what TK means, and will know to ask you to fix it before going to press.)

What I did not have time to address:

There was no Deaf Community, because… well, you have to have more than one Deaf person around, for there to be a community.  Deafness isn’t common, and travel is not easy.  There might not be even a single other deaf person within a hundred miles.  You can’t just hop a bus and go hang out together. For a Deaf community to exist, you’d first have to locate all the deaf people, and gather them together in one place.   This just doesn’t happen in Rowan’s world.

And Zenna being apparently unaffected by her trauma?  Hm.  I think if you look closely, you might see her veneer cracking a bit, in the scene in Brewer’s tavern.  It’s one of those things where there’s just no room to fully tell everyone’s back story — so I put the cues in there, for the reader to find, or not.  (There are a couple other places in the books where Someone Has a Story, which I intentionally do not tell.)

Okay: wrap up.

In conclusion: What can I say?  So much fun.  These are some really sharp minds, and it was so gratifying that they chose to talk about my books.

I’d like to suggest that you go buy their books!


9 Responses to “The Steerswoman panel at Readercon”

  • Inquisitive Raven Says:

    The sign language is used to communicate with wood gnomes, which from the description (long arms, prehensile toes) sound like uplifted chimps to me. If so, well, humans have been attempting to teach ASL to other primates for decades IRL. How successful these efforts have been is controversial. Anyway, the presence of apparently uplifted chimps combined with ongoing efforts to use ASL as a common language between human and chimp seems reason enough for the sign language to exist even in the absence of a deaf community.

    • Rosemary Says:

      The panelists weren’t actually complaining that ASL would not exist without a Deaf Community — they just wanted there to be a Deaf Community. I couldn’t include everything said in the entire panel, but the deafness issue came up as part of a discussion of disability representation present in the series, such as Zenna, and Deely the Outskirter.

  • EL Says:

    Ditto on the ASL and “wood gnomes” (chimps?). I don’t know why the panel didn’t pick up on that. In book 1 Rowan explicitly uses signs from the sign language used with wood gnomes with the deaf servant in the wizard’s fortress.

    • Rosemary Says:

      See my reply to Inquisitive Raven, above… And they also mentioned the ASL/wood gnomes/chimps connection.

  • Caitlin Sticco Says:

    If it makes you feel any better about the names, I’ve always pronounced Jannik as Yahnik, as it often is in Northern Europe. So, it didn’t even register for me as similar to Janus.

  • Thomas Sporer Says:

    Jannik and Janus are totally different names: Jannik is the Danish (and German) version of Ioannes (Ιωαννης – derived from Hebrew “Yahweh is Gracious”) while Janus (Ianvs) the Roman god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways passages, and endings.

    Therefore i considered both names a very good choice.

  • Nail Says:

    In regards to the torture scene, I personally found that its presentation, in terms of visceral intensity, was exactly as it should be in a story such as this: Not glorifying the violence, not sweeping it under the rug, but acknowledging the horrific nature of the act.
    However, my problem with it is that it adheres to the general portrayal in fiction of torture as a reliable tool for information extraction, which is false. This is a fact we know with certainty today and has been known for a long time; even during the middle ages, if someone named you as an accomplice while they were tortured, law often required additional evidence beyond the accusation for a conviction.
    Because people will say anything to stop being tortured, telling you what they think will get that to happen – not necessarily the truth.
    It felt incongruous to me for the steerswomen not to know this, as information gathering is kind of their thing.
    Acknowledging this wouldn’t even necessitate altering the story; upon opposition by Rowan, Bel could have pointed out that they hardly had the time or resources for more reliable ways to extract information from their prisoner, and proceeded on those grounds. The information doesn’t end up mattering anyway, so this simple exchange would have set the torture in its proper context and not perpetuated the dangerous misconception that torture is a horrible, but effective way to gain information.