|Cover by Phil Beresford|
Helen S Wright
Bloomsbury Caravel, 23 November 2017
PB, e, 424pp
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book.
A Matter of Oaths was, as the preface by Becky Chambers (The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit) makes clear in an interesting introduction first published in 1988 but seems to have gone relatively unnoticed then. Bloomsbury Caravel have now rescued it from obscurity and republished it.
The book certainly deserves that second chance, for at least two reasons.
First, we are endlessly told that women writing SFF, or SFF that features female or POC or LGBT protagonists, is a recent development (and, a certain sort of SFF fan implies, an unwelcome one which means sacrificing plot to diversity).
It shouldn't need saying, but both assertions are rubbish, and A Matter of Oaths is one data point that shows that argument up for what it is.
Secondly, it's simply a rattling good story, the sort that would capture the imagination of any space opera aficionado.
Prepare for a galaxy where endless war is fought between two immortal Emperors who have divided it between them; for modified humans ("webbers") who can mesh with their spaceships and who provide the forces who fight for both Emperors as part of a semi-independent Guild; a mysterious officer whose memory was wiped (a disgraceful thing, as it suggests he broke his Oath); Outsiders who menace the Empire's Convoys (and a very well realised escort sequence which made me recall CS Forrester's Hornblower novel - surely the original inspiration for this whole genre?); and real, credible human interactions between the ship's company.
Prepare to meet Rallya, Commander of the patrolship Bhattya, currently assigned to convoy escort duties, and her officers Vidar and Joshim. Rallya is a celebrated Commander, renowned for her abilities as a webber, but now ageing rather and facing the decay of those abilities. So she's apprehensive about her future, just as Joshim is facing up to the need to manage her replacement. As the story opens, though, these three are more concerned about filling their vacancy for a First Officer. A candidate presents himself - but it soon becomes clear that Rafe has something of a Past...
The plot is very much driven by the interaction between the four officers, and by the gradual unravelling of Rafe's memory-wipe. There's a background of high honour, as the title suggests: the Oaths sworn by the webbers, their Guild and by the two Emperors. For any to break these would put them outside the pale: but as becomes clear, that leaves plenty of scope for mischief (in which regard, I was reminded rather of the murky status of Asimov's Laws of Robotics).
Wright is especially good at taking her weird, hypothetical technologies and describing them so that they sound utterly unexceptional, part of everyday life. Of course a ship can't Jump when it's in the "mass shadow" of a space station or fleet. That just seems obvious. Of course the webbers would interact with the hardware using code systems such as "the standard fives used upon the cargoships, the eights of a surveyship, the extended tens of a patrolship". Just look at the passages where Rafe finds, commissions and explores an ancient web system ("He sent [Magnify] with a pointer to the area of the diagram and watched it reform on a larger scale, spanning four of his input matrices. he thought he would go crazy, shifting them from their old relationship to the new upside-down back-t-front world...") or where the team are engaged in combat with an Outsider raider.
I don't think I've seen such a convincing description of an invented technology since Terry Pratchett's history monks and their time cylinders (complete with load shedding). (I note from the biography on the Bloomsbury website that Wright worked "in a wide variety of Information Technology roles in the electricity generation and supply industry". Pratchett was at one time press officer in the Central Electricity Generating Board... I wonder if that industry spawned other first class SFF writers in the 1980s...)
She also makes the story seem vividly part of a larger whole, of being in media res, as though it's the middle volume of a trilogy - there is a central plot against the Empire which is partly, but not wholly resolved, leaving everything set up for a sequel; that ancient web which points to some previous story (plus the whole epic that's hinted at of the Empires being divided); Rallya's regrets over what happened thirty five years ago (no details are given) or Rafe's whole backstory.
Despite being nearly thirty years old, the story doesn't seem particularly dated (though of course the dominant technology being "The Web" made me smile) except perhaps that were this book written now it would probably be twice as long; there is little delay here between the ship setting out on a journey and it arriving. But that's not necessarily a bad thing!
To sum up, an engaging story that definitely has that stay-up-till-midnight, just-one-more-chapter vibe, that features a blazingly diverse cast of characters and that plays exuberantly in a convincing and feature-rich universe.
I wish I could read more about Rallya, Rafe & co.
The author's website is here. Bloomsbury's page is here. The book is available here, here or here. Liz Bourke's "Sleeps with Monsters" review here is excellent.