After Tarma’s entire tribe is murdered and she is left for dead, the young woman pledges herself to be swordsworn to the Star-Eyed Goddess, giving up sexual pleasure and romantic relationships for the strength of a deity to bring her vengeance.
In a city far away, a noble family with little money struggles. Out of greed, Kethry’s brother sells her to a wealthy pedophile. After escaping, Kethry develops her gift of sorcery at the White Winds school for mages, and takes an oath to help all those in need, while steering clear of her old city where she was sold as a bride.
Tarma and Kethry meet in the city where the murderous raiders take up residence, and since both women wish to rid the world of their ilk, they team up to do the most good. Realizing they’re like two hands joined perfectly, Tarma and Kethry decide to become blood sisters, a ritual blessed by the Star-Eyed Goddess that means Kethry has been adopted in the name of Tarma’s tribe. Together, they will work as mercenaries, a team of blade and magic. The Oathbound by Mercedes Lackey contains some of their adventures, including a troublesome demon whom Tarma and Kethry thought they defeated but returns.
In her long career, Mercedes Lackey’s writing skills change. In early works, I see more enjoyment on the page, as if the author liked what she was doing. In later stories, there’s the sense that Lackey is churning out another book for money. The stories about Tarma and Kethry were published in the 1980s, when Lackey first started, and as a result, the characters are more interesting, the plot has a bit more care, and there are funny details I never fail to notice, even when they don’t add to the plot. For example, Tarma and Kethry speak to a man in a tavern to get information out of him. He’s not free; they must ply him with beer to get the details, but he’s so greedy:
He drained his tankard yet again. This proved to be one tankard too many, as he slowly slid off the bench to lie beneath the table, a bemused smile on his face.
Though we don’t know this guard’s name, he inserts both knowledge and humor into the story, giving this Valdemar book a playful sparkle lacking in later novels. Several minor characters stood out to me, memorable for a unique trait or two that served the story when needed, such as the wise merchant, the argumentative priest, and the family that owns the clean inn. Characters who reappeared are ones I liked enough to hope they return in the next novel: the familiar, a wolf-panther sort of animal named Warrl imprinted on Tarma, and two men who train under Tarma on swords who wish to invest in a mage/sword school that Tarma and Kethry want to start.
Included with some Valdemar novels are a list of song lyrics, located at the back of the book. In The Oathbound, Lackey includes stanzas within the action scenes, showing readers how our characters’ deeds were later turned into songs by bards, giving Tarma and Kethry cause to comment on how annoying their own songs are and explain which parts are true to eager townspeople as they travel looking for mercenary work.
Best of all, the Goddess-blessed bond between Tarma and Kethry takes the place of romantic love. Spirit sisters, they rely on and care for each other the way teen girls make one friend with whom they share everything, so strong a bond that they would be dating if they weren’t friends. Lackey captures that feeling that I remember experiencing all through high school in a way that I don’t often see accomplished. The wonderful part is nothing can separate Tarma and Kethry, while real life always gets in the way of our girlish platonic love.