In a fantasy world crafted by Mercedes Lackey, Tarma is the last member of her tribe after they were butchered. In her quest to seek revenge, she teams up with Kethry, a mage of minor nobility who was married off as a teen but escaped. Together, they avenge Tarma’s tribe and swear a blood oath to be sisters in their souls, an oath that was accepted by Tarma’s goddess. The Oathbound is the first novel in which Tarma and Kethry work to build a reputation as hired sword and sorceress.
In the second novel, Oathbreakers, we find Tarma and Kethry working as mercenaries under Captain Idra. Now that the protagonists have a strong reputation, the goal is to make enough money to open a school that trains mages and teaches sword skills. Mercedes Lackey opens with the heroes working under Captain Idra, but after the campaign is through, the captain leaves for home where her brothers need her to decide who will rule the throne she renounced. Months pass, and the captain has gone missing. It’s up to Tarma and Kethry to find out what happened and return the beloved and respected Captain Idra to her company of mercenaries.
The Oathbound and Oathbreakers were both published in 1989, early in Lackey’s career. It shows, but not how you might think. Early on, Lackey demonstrates passion, creativity, and a thoughtfulness that shines in her careful plotting. Later novels are quite sloppy, full of typos editors didn’t bother to catch (if they were edited??) and characters that are so cardboard as to be mistaken for any other character of the same gender. My theory is that Lackey became popular enough that publishers want her to churn out novels like a machine so they can capitalize on her following. While someone like Stephen King has a grip on his writing skills and may not need heavy editing on a sentence level, Lackey does. Fortunately, Oathbreakers does not suffer from what reads like rushed writing.
Tarma and Kethry are unique, as are the secondary characters we meet, meaning the world is that much more immersive. Even the horses have personalities, and I can tell them apart. Tarma is a thin, boyish-looking woman with sharp features. Everything about her body is built for battle with sword and war horses. She’s protective and hard, yet loves children. Kethry is described as pretty, with a stereotypical Irish look to her. Working on her skills as a mage has made her more useful to a mercenary company, and thanks to a magic sword, she won’t get herself killed if attacked by blade. Her magic is clever, and she writes new spells to serve specific situations.
Another aspect that immersed me in the writing was the dialogue. Tarma’s tribal idioms and Kethry’s ability to code switch between soldier and nobility make the conversations interesting. Because Kethry learned Tarma’s tribe’s language, they speak without others being able to follow along, which reminds me of the bilingual Navajo Code Talkers recruited by the U.S. marines during WWII. Scattered throughout their speech, especially Tarma’s, are words in Shin’a’in, her tribal language (fabricated by Lackey). You learn the language as you go, but here is an example:
“You’re right,” Kethry said. . . . “There’s more at stake that just this little game.”
“Hai’she’li. This is just the tail of the beastie. We’re going to have to get into its lair to see if it’s a grasscat or a treehare — and if it’s got Idra in its mouth.”
Lackey also writes with an honesty she loses later in her career. Female characters aren’t praised for the looks, men can be clumsy but tender lovers, people are killed in war and have their bodies burned after a campaign. Even the way mercenaries of different companies talk on the battlefield after a campaign is over demonstrates an honesty about being a hired sword who has no vested interest in victory other than a larger payoff.
Something that will never cease to thrill me is watching people do something at which they excel. To see the product of time, training, and life experience is beautiful, whether the result is a painting, a rebuilt car, a tennis match, or a suspension bridge. I love to see experts in action. In Oathbreakers, Lackey doesn’t shy from the details of war planning. When asked about an old trail Tarma and a few mercenaries scouted out, she responds with her expertise:
“It’ll be brutal. . . . Maybe some of the ponies your mountain-clan scouts have could make it, but they’d be fair useless on the other side of those hills. No running ability, and on [the foe’s] side of the pass, that’s what they’ll need. Anything else would break a leg on that track, or break the path down using it.”
“Big hills, baby mountains, doesn’t much matter. Shale most of the way through, and sandstone. Bad footing.”
Later, when Tarma and Kethry seek out their missing captain, we get loads more strategy and planning, which describes the movement of hundreds of people and how and when. I was delighted to see the plans unfold and come to fruition.
I’m excited to return to Tarma and Kethry in the third book, which is a collection of short stories about them. This will be a first for #ReadingValdemar! After hearing many readers say the Vows & Honor trilogy about Tarma and Kethry is their favorite, I now have to agree with them.