A Matter of Oaths: A Review
A MATTER OF OATHS
Helen S. Wright
The review contains spoilers.
Let's get this out of the way: I love this book and it's not perfect by a long stretch. The plot gets messy and confusing and the world building is incomplete, but the characters and technology and what we get of the world building are wonderful. A Matter of Oaths was published 30 years ago, and it has held up through the years. For fun, if you’re a fan of older paperback covers, I recommend first checking out the new cover and then looking at the covers used 30 years ago. A Matter of Oaths was treated to white-washing and Rallya, while sharing main character duties, is completely off the covers. I also recommend looking up a couple of interviews Helen S. Wright gave around the time of the re-publication. She is very intelligent.
A Matter of Oaths opens with Commander Rallya trying to find a new officer for her ship the Bhattya. She and her Webmaster Joshim come to the conclusion that Oathbreak Rafell (Rafe) is their best and only choice.
Rafe doesn't remember what he did to become an Oathbreaker. Rafe is a webber, someone who has been modified to connect to the technology called The Web, which allows humans to interface with other humans and ships. Webbers belong to The Guild. If a webber breaks their oath to The Guild they are mind-wiped and called Oathbreakers. It seems a little unfair that Oathbreakers can't remember why they're discriminated against, but it also felt very realistic.
Rafe is installed as a First aboard the Bhattya and his competence quickly earns him the respect of Rallya and Joshim even while some of his fellow shipmates balk at having an Oathbreaker on board. As Rafe is put into positions of stress in the Web he instinctively has knowledge that is well beyond his supposed current level of experience and understanding. That, along with the assassin that keeps trying to get him, reveals a deeper plot afoot.
Wright does not spare time to explain the technical aspects of her world. I didn't mind this so much. It's clear that she understands the mechanics behind everything, and rather than spend the time on exposition and technoporn, she instead fleshes out her characters. I could, however, have used a few dozen more pages to flesh out the plot a bit more.
That said, Wright's characters are the highlight of this book. Rallya is an old woman, her hip hurts, she's cranky, stubborn, manipulative, and sometimes it hurts to get out of bed. By all rights she should have retired from ship commanding a long time ago, but she has no desire to be relegated to office work just yet. She is, though, just on the cusp of losing her reaction times, something that will force her to give up her position or risk lives.
Joshim is a lovely doll. He is in charge of the web team and as such spends his time balancing egos so that the ship literally runs. He is a calm rock. Joshim is religious and his religion comes into play as he uses his religions meditation techniques to help Rafe uncover his life pre-mind-wipe, breaking the Oath to do so.
Rafe is a bit arrogant. Characters casually decide that he is clearly from an aristocratic background, but he isn't hotheaded or mean. He's the type of arrogant that would rather burn out or die than ask for help, which in the hands of a different author I would have found frustrating, but it was understandable in the hands of Wright. Both Joshim and Rafe are men of color.
Some of my favorite parts of A Matter of Oaths are the handwavy parts. Wright doesn't feel the need to explain that men and women are on equal footing. Rallya never feels like she needs to prove herself because she is a woman. It is common for Webmasters to balance out the emotions in their web by building intimacy through casual sex with the team. This is accepted and not coerced in anyway. If sex wouldn't make the situation better it doesn't happen. Rafe is mentioned as having "near human ancestry" which heavily implies that the other characters, while humanoid, have more alien ancestry, but nothing is ever really explained. All of these things are just part of the world without Wright feeling the need to justify them.
I was a little disappointed that there weren't more pages given to the beginning of the relationship between Joshim and Rafe. They kiss, sleep together, and then instantly are in a deeply committed relationship, with Joshim willing to break the Oath to help Rafe remember what happened in his past. A slower build would have felt more satisfying. I did enjoy that there is no relationship drama between the two. Too often a slower build up means the author builds to a huge blow or has the characters do an on-off thing for a while before committing. I don't find that a good example of relationship building; I find that indicative of underlying problems either in the characters or in the relationship. So if the trade off is having Joshim and Rafe get together a little too quickly but then have a relationship characterized by stability and support, I will take stability and support.
I'm not going to get too much into the ending, which was a bit of a let down after the rest of the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the Emperors and how Wright wrote about immortality, but there was just not quite enough of it there. There's corruption at the highest level in the Empires and at the Guild, but there isn't room enough in this book to really even touch on it, much less actually give the reader any resolution. In fact a lot of this book reads like the middle book in a trilogy. The ancient but more advanced technology that plays an important part of the plot could have been a whole book or a couple of books. The aftermath of A Matter of Oaths and the corruption uncovered could be played out in future books. However, we'll never really know. Wright has mentioned in an interview that she is writing a new book. However, it isn't related to this universe.