Oathbreakers

by Mercedes Lackey

Cover image

Series: Vows and Honor #2
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: January 1989
ISBN: 0-88677-454-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 318

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The Tarma and Kethry stories tend to be stand-alone and are readable out of order, and this isn't an exception. But if you want their background, consider reading Oathblood or (less recommended) The Oathbound before reading this book. (Reading Oathblood first may require a bit of finesse, since some of the stories in that book come after this novel. Unfortunately, there is no good ordering or collection of these stories that maintains internal chronological order.)

This is more like it. This is the Tarma and Kethry story that I remembered when calling them my favorite characters in the Valdemar universe.

Following the short stories merged into The Oathbound fixup novel, Tarma and Kethry are still trying to gather the resources required to start a school and to rebuild Tarma's clan. That's led to them signing with a highly-respected mercenary company: Idra's Sunhawks. Idra renounced her claims to the Rethwellen line of royal succession to lead the Sunhawks, creating a mercenary band that's legendary for their quality and battlefield capabilities. The story opens with a campaign in Jkatha, on one side of a civil war, which is mostly an opportunity to get to know the Sunhawks and to see Tarma and Kethry show their competence. The real story starts later, when Idra is called back to Rethwellen for family business and something goes very wrong.

I think Lackey is best at two types of stories: misunderstood young people who grow into themselves and their place in the world, and competent people displaying their competence. The Tarma and Kethry stories, and particularly Oathbreakers, are of the latter type. This is clearly wish fulfillment: Lackey's stories often lack nuance, there's rarely any doubt as to who the good and bad guys are, and, although very bad things can happen, you're probably going to get some sort of happy ending. But if you're in the mood for that sort of story, it's so satisfying.

The Tarma and Kethry we see here are a mature, experienced fighter and mage team (plus Warrl, who provides vitally important magical and combat assistance, as well as some pointed advice). They know what they're doing, they care deeply for each other, and both their relationship patterns and their capabilities are well-understood. Both do a bit of growing over the course of this novel, but that's not really the point. The point is seeing them take on unfamiliar challenges and tricky investigations while being very good at what they do. In other words, this isn't bildungsroman or high fantasy; it's sword and sorcery, and an excellent example of the genre.

Reading these books as part of the overall Valdemar series provides some enjoyable moments with the first explicit contact between Valdemar and its Heralds and Tarma and Kethry's world. The maps here firmly establish their home regions as well to the south of Valdemar and multiple kingdoms away, but Rethwellen (as previously established in earlier Herald-focused trilogies) is on Valdemar's southern border. Seeing Lackey's very separate magic and divinity systems cross and meet, with a bit of initial mutual suspicion, is a rather fun moment (if, at least, you're in the mood for a story in which the world has a vested interest in making sure all the good people like each other). Although I'm wondering why Kethry didn't get extremely uncomfortable when she crossed the border into Valdemar due to the trick that Vanyel pulled in his trilogy. (I seem to recall this is explained away at some point.)

Be warned that this novel does contain other elements typical of early Lackey. There is, for example, the inevitable rape, although thankfully off-camera and not quite as central to the plot. (Although in a way that makes it worse since it felt gratuitous. I'm unconvinced that the rape was at all necessary to the story that Lackey was telling.) Revenge and eye-for-an-eye justice are hotly defended by the protagonists. This isn't a series to look to for subtle and complex solutions to political problems; instead, everything gets better if you just kill all the evil people. There isn't anything quite as egregious as the actions of the supposed good guys in The Oathbound, but you still have to read past a certain bloodthirstiness in the stated good side of a very black-and-white morality.

That means this isn't a novel for all people or all moods. But within those genre conventions, which aren't that unusual for sword and sorcery, Oathbreakers is a lot of fun. It's one of the few Valdemar novels I've read during this re-read that lived up to my memory of it. Recommended if you like this sort of thing.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-10-23

Last modified and spun 2016-02-01