The Oathbound by Mercedes Lackey

That’s Kethry, Tarma, and Warrl on our 2020 banner!

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.

11 comments

  1. Hey! None of my books included song lyrics in the back! I’m jealous. I love the recurring theme of adventurers getting frustrated at bards for making their adventures sound much more than they are. Kero, Vanyel, Tarma, and Kethry all run into this problem. Highly amusing.

    There was a ton of humor in these pages. When I was going back through my highlights, I found most of them were the funny moments, like you mentioned above or when Tarma called Kethry crazy for wanting to wander the Pelagirs or when Kethry calls the men she tried to seduce puppies. XD I laughed aloud reading this book, for sure.

    Did you notice that Kethry’s magic is different from all the other forms of magic we’ve been introduced to? I thought it was interesting that she uses spirits and summoning which we haven’t seen before. And the idea of mind magic where someone can set an illusion is also super interesting — I hope we see that again in a future Herald. I’m totally curious to know how they might use it! Perhaps in the Spy books?

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    • Okay, now I’m wondering if there WERE songs in the back of the books…..maybe it was Vanyel’s trilogy? There were so many songs about him. In The Oathbound, the lyrics were between paragraphs in my copy.

      Another thing I didn’t comment on that you did was the way Tarma and Kethry use appearances to confuse people. Kethry looking helpless was always fun, but I liked even more when they chose to have Tarma look like the sweet maiden who wanted to travel with the merchant’s group.

      I did notice that Kethry’s magic is different, and I think because we’ve learned so much about Tayledras magic, it’s made me think that’s all there is. But in reality even Firesong practiced magic in a different way than Elspeth and Darkwind. Firesong felt it was more intuitive, and the couple had rules they followed, if I’m remembering correctly. The debate was stronger when they were in Valdemar, I believe, especially when Firesong wanted to use magic and was against the engineers helping out with the mage storms. Since Kethry learned magic from the White Winds school, and it seems like her magic is more “witchy” than “earthy,” I’m now assuming use of magic is all different.

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      • I like to believe that it all comes from the same source, but how you tap into it is different. Like how Hardon’s Kings have all had this crazy Earthsense. I recall Darkwind and Firesong debating this and it reminds me that all complex things are both art and science. Firesong felt the art side was more valuable and Darkwind the science, but they were both using elements of both at all times.

        I like this philosophy because it means that anyone could be a mage if they could only figure out how best to tap into it. Sure, some are learned like with the White Winds school, but others you’re just born with, like how Tremane went through the ceremony to see if he could even become the King of Hardon.

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  2. I hope Jackie will forgive me for commenting only once. I have read both reviews, promise! You both write of strong female leads, Jackie mentions one is a woman of colour, and a strong theme of anti-misogyny. All good. Melanie you speak of the duo fighting wrongs, but you both refer to them as mercenaries – ie. will follow any leader for the right money. I know SF has lots of fighting but as a pacifist I prefer it not to be gratuitous (and ditto rape).

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    • The story of mercenaries is interesting in Lackey’s world. In a book we read already, which stars Kethry’s niece, Kerowyn, the duo train Kerowyn and another person to become mercenaries, and all the skills they learn help them do good in their travels as they seek paying jobs. I always thought mercenaries were ruthless villains based on movie portrayals, but these characters are just as likely to protect a wagon train from bandits as they are to rescue someone or something for money.

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    • I completely forgive you, Bill. 😉 I’m just thankful someone is reading these besides me and Melanie! I’m with you on not wanting gratuitous violence in my sci-i (or anything, honestly). In fact, if something is graphically violent I will DNF it every time. I just cannot handle it.

      While these characters are mercenaries, the fighting is rarely described in detail (to my point of the rapes mentioned in this book being all in the background, the fighting is a bit similar; barely described beyond “And she knew he would never get back up.”) while still giving us a good idea of what’s going on. Lackey uses the environment and different fighting styles to share an idea of what’s happening. I always feel like I can clearly follow the action despite this lack of detail. It’s a nice way to read fantasy violence.

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      • Every once in a while I see in my stats that someone looked at one of my Lackey posts, so I’m hopeful that people are searching for these types of reviews but aren’t regular followers of Grab the Lapels. I’m happy to keep reviewing them for posterity. It’s a big reading task, and I’d hate to suddenly change what I’ve been doing.

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        • I like writing reviews for little-reviewed books. I feel like I’m doing something meaningful to expand the breadth of the internet, rather than repeating something someone else said. That’s one of the reasons I am enjoying the #ReadingValdemar adventure so much!

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