Oathblood

by Mercedes Lackey

Cover image

Series: Vows and Honor #3
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: April 1998
ISBN: 0-88677-773-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 394

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I have this story collection listed as the third book in the Vows and Honor series, but as mentioned in the review of The Oathbound, it's more complicated than that. This book has the first Tarma and Kethry story, which is not found in The Oathbound, and two of the better stories from that volume. This is probably the place to start for the series; you're not missing that much from the rest of that book. However, the last three stories ("Wings of Fire," "Spring Plowing at Forst Reach," and "Oathblood") have significant spoilers for Oathbreakers.

Therefore, if you care about both avoiding spoilers and reading this series, my recommended reading order is to ignore The Oathbound entirely, read Oathblood up to but not including "Wings of Fire," read Oathbreakers, and then come back here for the last two stories.

"Sword-sworn": This is the very first Tarma and Kethry story and hence where this series actually begins. As Lackey notes in her introduction, it's a pretty stock "rape and revenge" story, which is not something I particularly enjoy. Marion Zimmer Bradley liked it well enough to accept it anyway, and I can sort of see why: the dynamic between the two characters sparkles in a few places, and the Shin'a'in world-building isn't bad. The plot, though, is very predictable and not very notable. There isn't much here that you'd be surprised by if you'd read references to these events in later stories. And there's no explanation of a few things one might be curious about, such as where Need came from. (6)

"Turnabout": This is one of the two stories also found in The Oathbound. Merchants are plagued by bandits who manage to see through ruses and always catch their guards by surprise (with a particularly nasty bit of rape and murder in one case — Tarma and Kethry stories have quite a lot of that). That's enough to get the duo to take the job of luring out the bandits and dealing with them, using a nice bit of magical disguise.

This story is also a song on one of the Vows and Honor albums from Firebird (which I also have). It was one of my favorites of Lackey's songs, so I want to like the story (and used to like it a great deal). Unfortunately, the very nasty bit of revenge that the supposed heroes take at the end of the story completely destroyed my enjoyment of it on re-reading. It's essentially a glorification of prison rape, which is a trope that I no longer have any patience for. (4)

"The Making of a Legend": In order to explain the differences between the song based on "Turnabout" and the actual story, Lackey invented a bard, Leslac, who loves writing songs about Tarma and Kethry and regularly gets the details wrong, mostly by advertising them as moral crusaders for women instead of mercenaries who want to get paid, much to their deep annoyance. This is his debut in an actual story, featuring an incident that's delightfully contrary to Leslac's expectations. It's a slight story, but I thought it was fun. (6)

"Keys": Another story from The Oathbound, this is a locked-room mystery with a bit of magical sleuthing. Kethry attempts to prove that a woman did not murder her husband while Tarma serves as her champion in a (rather broken) version of trial by combat. I think the version here is better than the edited version in The Oathbound, and it's a fairly enjoyable bit of sleuthing. (7)

"A Woman's Weapon": I would call this the typical Tarma and Kethry story (except that, for a change, it's missing the rape): they stumble across some sort of serious injustice and put things to right with some hard thinking and a bit of poetic justice. In this case, it's a tannery that's poisoning the land, and a master tanner who can't put a stop to his rival. Competent although not particularly memorable. (6)

"The Talisman": A rather depressing little story about a mage who wants shortcuts and a magic talisman that isn't what it appears to be. Not one of my favorites, in part because it has some common Tarma and Kethry problems: unnecessary death, a feeling that the world is very dangerous and that mistakes are fatal, and narrative presentation of the people who die from their stupidity as deserving it. I couldn't shake the feeling that there was probably some better way of resolving this if people had just communicated a bit better. (5)

"A Tale of Heroes": Back to the rape, unfortunately, plus a bit of very convenient match-making that I found extremely dubious. For all that Lackey's introduction paints this as a story of empowering people to follow their own paths, the chambermaid of this story didn't seem to have many more choices in her life after meeting Tarma and Kethry than before, even if her physical situation was better. I did like the touch of Tarma and Kethry not being the heroes and victors in the significant magical problem they stumble across, though, and it's a warm-hearted story if you ignore the effects of trauma as much as the story ignores them. (6)

"Friendly Fire": An amusing short story about the power of bad luck and Murphy's Law. It hit one of my pet peeves at one point, where Lackey tries to distort the words of someone with a cold and just makes the dialogue irritating to read, but otherwise a lot of fun. (7)

"Wings of Fire": I love the Hawkbrothers, so it's always fun when they show up. The villain of this piece is way over the top and leaves much to be desired, but the guest-starring Hawkbrother mostly makes up for it. Once again, Tarma and Kethry get out of a tight spot by thinking harder instead of by having more power, although the villain makes that rather easy via overconfidence. Once again, though, the poetic justice that Lackey's protagonists enjoy leaves a bad taste in my mouth, although it's not quite as bad here as some other stories. (6)

"Spring Planting at Forst Reach": On one level, this is a rather prosaic story about training horses (based on Lackey's experience and reading, so a bit better than typical fantasy horse stories). But it's set at Forst Reach, Vanyel's home, some years after Vanyel. I like those people and their gruff approach to life, and it meshes well with Tarma and Kethry's approach. If you enjoy the two showing off their skills and wowing people with new ideas, you'll have fun with this. (7)

"Oathblood": As you might guess from the matching title, this novella is the heart of the book and about a quarter of its length. We get to see Kethry's kids, see more of their life in their second (post-Oathbreakers) career, and then get a rather good adventure story of resourceful and thoughtful youngsters, with a nice touch of immature but deeply-meant loyalty. I didn't enjoy it as much as I would have without one of the tactics the kids use to get out of trouble, but my dislike for reading about other people's bowel troubles is partly a personal quirk. This is a pretty typical Lackey story of resourcefulness and courage; if you like this series in general, you'll probably enjoy this one. (7)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-01-31

Last modified and spun 2016-05-30