The Steerswoman’s Road by Rosemary Kirstein
Formerly published as two books: The Steerswoman (1989) and The Outskirter’s Secret (1992).
Rowan is a “steerswoman” or a wandering naturalist who keeps ongoing notes and maps and is compelled to answer any question put to her with the truth. Likewise, everyone must answer steerswomen truthfully if questioned and offer them hospitality. Rowan, due to her guild’s training, is highly rational, calm, efficient, resourceful, and observant.
In the first book, she is investigating the origin of some strange blue gems and makes friends with Bel, a barbarian woman “outskirter” who has traveled in from the obligatory desert where barbarians always live in fantasies, and happens to have a belt made of these gems.
Bel and Rowan, who are a lot alike, end up pursuing this quest in Rowan’s land. They are never lovers or rivals or anything, just acquaintances. The author seems more interested in exploring the quest rather than the characters, and introduces no interpersonal tensions or differing agendas between them.
They uncover an increasingly sinister plot involving mysterious wizards, and help a fledgling wizard boy.
The second book continues with Bel and Rowan following the secret of the blue gems into Bel’s “outskirter” land which seems more like a prairie than a desert. Again, not much interpersonal character stuff, but a lot of anthropological details as Rowan adjusts to life with the tribes.
The wizard stuff gets more interesting as the blue gems start to sound like pieces of a fallen satellite and the “rendezvous weather” that the wizards inflict upon the land resembles radiation poisoning. The quest breaks off in the end, obviously to be completed in a third book. Note: this is one of those rare fantasy books that doesn’t wallow in the usual medieval patriarchy. In this book, men and women are friends and equals, and that is so refreshing!