It was papersky who first mentioned this series in her blog, and then I think sartorias referred to them, and then possibly truepenny. When writers whose works you admire write about how much they admire another writer, it's usually worth checking her out, and the chance definitely paid off in this case. I got them from the library, but I'm going to order the whole set from Amazon so that I can read them again.
When I grow up, I want to be a Steerswoman. No - wait - I think I already am. To some extent, anyway. In the world of this series, Steerswomen (and some Steersmen) are a group of itinerant ... questioners. Scholars, really. Their responsibility is adding to the collective knowledge of the world. One of their prime contributions is mapping - perhaps that was their first task - but they also record all the minutiae of the world around them: animal and plant life, and the customs of human societies. There is a custom - a law, really - that you must answer a Steerswoman's questions and she must answer yours. Unless, that is, you ever refuse to answer one of her questions, in which case she will place a Ban on you and no one of her order needs ever answer one of your questions again. Their place in this world is much like that of a mendicant priesthood - a town or village is usually glad to have one in their midst and will feed and house her in exchange for teaching and entertainment in the form of storytelling (she's like a kind of human Discovery Channel).
There is another specialized group in this world: Wizards. They keep themselves to themselves. They seem to tolerate the Steerswomen, and are tolerated by them but not liked.
Rowan, the Steerswoman protagonist, has found something and tries to find out what it is. Her questions come to the attention of the Wizards, who immediately pursue her and try to kill her. As she seeks answers, Rowan meets and befriends an Outskirter, Bel, who is a member of a loosely knit tribal group that lives literally on the edges, in the wilder, less hospitable areas of the world. Rowan and Bel travel together and are joined by Willam, who is a young man who wants to become a Wizard.
This sparse summary makes the series sound like one of those Extruded Fantasy Product Quest sequences that have people wandering randomly about a world looking for something while being hunted by Dark Riders. It really isn't. I can't say anything at all about what they discover without massive spoilers, and the process of discovery is what this sequence of novels is all about. It's really one unbroken story rather than a "series": each novel picks up almost immediately where the other left off.
Only Barbara Hambly, and perhaps Ursula Le Guin, have equally effectively conveyed the heart and mind of a scholar and the appeal of a scholar's life. The point of view is so tightly controlled that we find out the truth gradually, as Rowan does. Even now, at the end of the fourth book, when much has become clear, there are some mysteries yet to be solved. The world is detailed and internally consistent. The characters are well developed - so far, I have yet to meet anyone who is not interesting, and even the "villains" have complex motives. I love the relationship between Rowan, Bel and Willam, and can't wait to spend more time with them.
It is a delight to discover a new and compelling series when I thought I'd read everything worth reading. The best and worst thing about it is that it's not finished, and Kirstein doesn't seem to be a fast writer. This is a good thing in the sense that the quality of the work is stellar; she hasn't gotten sloppy as the series continues. In fact, if anything, the books get better as you continue through the sequence. But now I absolutely can't wait for the next one!