The Oathbound

by Mercedes Lackey

Cover image

Series: Vows and Honor #1
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: July 1988
ISBN: 0-88677-414-4
Format: Mass market
Pages: 302

Buy at Powell's Books

This book warrants a bit of explanation.

Before Arrows of the Queen, before Valdemar (at least in terms of publication dates), came Tarma and Kethry short stories. I don't know if they were always intended to be set in the same world as Valdemar; if not, they were quickly included. But they came from another part of the world and a slightly different sub-genre. While the first two Valdemar trilogies were largely coming-of-age fantasy, Tarma and Kethry are itinerant sword-and-sorcery adventures featuring two women with a soul bond: the conventionally attractive, aristocratic mage Kethry, and the celibate, goddess-sworn swordswoman Tarma. Their first story was published, appropriately, in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Swords and Sorceress III.

This is the first book about Tarma and Kethry. It's a fix-up novel: shorter stories, bridged and re-edited, and glued together with some additional material. And it does not contain the first Tarma and Kethry story.

As mentioned in my earlier Valdemar reviews, this is a re-read, but it's been something like twenty years since I previously read the whole Valdemar corpus (as it was at the time; I'll probably re-read everything I have on hand, but it's grown considerably, and I may not chase down the rest of it). One of the things I'd forgotten is how oddly, from a novel reader's perspective, the Tarma and Kethry stories were collected. Knowing what I know now about publishing, I assume Swords and Sorceress III was still in print at the time The Oathbound was published, or the rights weren't available for some other reason, so their first story had to be omitted. Whatever the reason, The Oathbound starts with a jarring gap that's no less irritating in this re-read than it was originally.

Also as is becoming typical for this series, I remembered a lot more world-building and character development than is actually present in at least this first book. In this case, I strongly suspect most of that characterization is in Oathbreakers, which I remember as being more of a coherent single story and less of a fix-up of puzzle and adventure stories with scant time for character growth. I'll be able to test my memory shortly.

What we do get is Kethry's reconciliation of her past, a brief look at the Shin'a'in and the depth of Tarma and Kethry's mutual oath (unfortunately told more than shown), the introduction of Warrl (again, a relationship that will grow a great deal more depth later), and then some typical sword and sorcery episodes: a locked room mystery, a caravan guard adventure about which I'll have more to say later, and two rather unpleasant encounters with a demon. The material is bridged enough that it has a vague novel-like shape, but the bones of the underlying short stories are pretty obvious. One can tell this isn't really a novel even without the tell of a narrative recap in later chapters of events that you'd just read earlier in the same book.

What we also get is rather a lot of rape, and one episode of seriously unpleasant "justice."

A drawback of early Lackey is that her villains are pure evil. My not entirely trustworthy memory tells me that this moderates over time, but early stories tend to feature villains completely devoid of redeeming qualities. In this book alone one gets to choose between the rapist pedophile, the rapist lord, the rapist bandit, and the rapist demon who had been doing extensive research in Jack Chalker novels. You'll notice a theme. Most of the rape happens off camera, but I was still thoroughly sick of it by the end of the book. This was already a cliched motivation tactic when these stories were written.

Worse, as with the end of Arrow's Flight, the protagonists don't seem to be above a bit of "turnabout is fair play." When you're dealing with rape as a primary plot motivation, that goes about as badly as you might expect. The final episode here involves a confrontation that Tarma and Kethry brought entirely on themselves through some rather despicable actions, and from which they should have taken a lesson about why civilized societies have criminal justice systems. Unfortunately, despite an ethical priest who is mostly played for mild amusement, no one in the book seems to have drawn that rather obvious conclusion. This, too, I recall as getting better as the series goes along and Lackey matures as a writer, but that only helps marginally with the early books.

Some time after the publication of The Oathbound and Oathbreakers, something (presumably the rights situation) changed. Oathblood was published in 1998 and includes not only the first Tarma and Kethry story but also several of the short stories that make up this book, in (I assume) something closer to their original form. That makes The Oathbound somewhat pointless and entirely skippable. I re-read it first because that's how I first approached the series many years ago, and (to be honest) because I'd forgotten how much was reprinted in Oathblood. I'd advise a new reader to skip it entirely, start with the short stories in Oathblood, and then read Oathbreakers before reading the final novella. You'd miss the demon stories, but that's probably for the best.

I'm complaining a lot about this book, but that's partly from familiarity. If you can stomach the rape and one stunningly unethical protagonist decision, the stories that make it up are solid and enjoyable, and the dynamic between Tarma and Kethry is always a lot of fun (and gets even better when Warrl is added to the mix). I think my favorite was the locked room mystery. It's significantly spoiled by knowing the ending, and it has little deeper significance, but it's a classic sort unembellished, unapologetic sword-and-sorcery tale that's hard to come by in books. But since it too is reprinted (in a better form) in Oathblood, there's no point in reading it here.

Followed by Oathbreakers.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-10-20

Last modified and spun 2015-10-24