Originally published as a book in 1998, Oathblood gathers the short stories about Tarma and Kethry that Mercedes Lackey had previously published in magazines. Lackey’s first appeared in print in 1986 with the story “Turnabout,” found now in Oathblood, so readers get to see where the now-prolific fantasy author began.
Tarma is a swordswoman and Kethry is a mage. Both women spent their days as mercenaries in an effort to earn enough money to open a school where they would teach their crafts. Oathblood includes the story of Tarma and Kethry meeting for the first time, a couple of adventures as mercenaries, introduces Kethry’s children after they are born, and sees the pair settled at their school in a final novella.
Much like The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy that I read back in college, these stories are just good, simple fun. You may learn a logical lesson at the end, or things can be pure funny in a genre typically steeped in serious swordsmen like Conan the Barbarian, but they definitely read like something you’d get from a monthly magazine. Despite their simplicity, I noticed serious topics applicable to readers in 2020 would crop up. In one story, Tarma and Kethry come upon a foul-smelling community, one that has tanners who skip the skill and use chemicals to process animal skins. A resident remarks:
“There are more than enough people in this world who only want cheaper goods, and don’t care how they’re made, or what the hidden costs are.”
We discuss the benefits of a global economy and finding responsibly and ethically made goods today, and I couldn’t help but think of my clothing tags and how none of them are made on the same continent as my body. In order for stores to keep prices down to a place Americans are willing to pay, some unethical practices have to happen.
In another story, Tarma and Kethry are in quite a bind when they try to assist a captured mage. Kethry’s magical sword, forged with the vengeful soul of a tribeswoman of centuries ago, can only be used against men. The sword will not harm another woman, even a female villain. And yet in a strange moment, the sword blocks a death blow meant to slay the captured mage. Tarma and Kethry figure it out:
“I guess when [the sword] couldn’t identify him as positively male or female, she decided to act first and figure it out later.”
Why did she help him? He’s gender queer. That’s right; back in the 1980s Lackey wrote a story about a gender non-conforming person! Going further into non-conforming practices, Tarma refers to the children created by Kethry and Jadrek as “ours.” That’s right; Tarma and Kethry became oath sisters, and when Jadrek falls in love with Kethry, they become a trio of non-traditional co-parents.
One of the most frightening parts of the collection came in the last story, a novella about the abduction of twin girls after they leave Tarma and Kethry’s school for mid-winter break. The duo saddle up to find the missing girls only to discover their eldest daughter also ready to depart. She’s too young, they say. But she’s sworn an oath to her kidnapped friend in the tradition of Tarma’s tribe, one that must be honored. What Kethry says to their daughter next gave me absolute chills for its realism, a realism missing in many stories of live or die by the sword:
“I am not pleased with this,” she told the girl. “I am not particularly pleased that you decided to use an oath that serious without thinking of the consequences. You have a chance to redeem yourself if you follow every order we give you to the letter, with no argument, and no hesitation. If you cannot keep up, you will return home on your own; we won’t have time to take you back. This is going to be the hardest thing you have ever done, and there will be no room for thoughtless acts. I am not you mother on this trip; Tarma is not your foster mother. We are your commanders, and if you make a mistake, it could be fatal, not just for you, but for all of us. If there is fighting, you will stay clear unless otherwise ordered. If you bring danger on us, we will save you if we can, but it is not only possible but likely that we cannot. Is that understood?”
Oathblood is distinctly and beautifully female, from the severe cramps Kethry suffers one night to the close friendships between girls who exchange prized gifts, to the way Tarma teaches her male students that she is not subservient to them thanks to her gender. While I was lulled into think Oathblood by Mercedes Lackey would be a simple collection of stories that harken back to the days of serial sci-fi and fantasy magazines, I realized through the passages I marked that there was much more going on — just not in your face.
Interested in joining in?
Jackie and I start a new trilogy next month, and it’s a great one to begin with if you’re new to Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series. Check out the schedule below: