The Oathbound (1987) is the first book in Mercedes Lackey’s VOWS AND HONOR series, a trilogy in her larger VALDEMAR saga. You don’t need to be familiar with VALDEMAR before picking up The Oathbound.
The story focuses on two heroines who suffered traumatic events, re-made themselves, and are on separate quests for revenge. Tarma is a clanswoman from a nomadic tribe that got wiped out by raiders. She became an elite warrior and has sworn to avenge her people. Kethry fled an abusive marriage, went to magic school, and became an extremely powerful sorceress. She has a sword named Need (those familiar with other VALDEMAR novels may recognize it) that compels its master to go to the aid of oppressed women. Together, Tarma and Kethry are a formidable sword-and-sorcery duo.
In The Oathbound, we learn the backstories of Tarma and Kethry and we witness their bonding as adopted sisters as well as Kethry’s pledge to help Tarma rebuild her clan. The women also want to start a school to train others in sword and sorcery.
But first they must earn some wealth and prestige so they can attract others to the clan. To that end, they’ve hired out as mercenaries. Also, Kethry, who is still fertile, needs to find a suitable mate so she can bear the clan’s first child. These plans take them on a tour around Lackey’s universe (fans will be familiar with some of the locales they visit and people they meet) as they hire on with various employers and right all the wrongs they encounter (men abusing women).
I have read dozens of books by Mercedes Lackey and few of them received a rating of more than 3 stars from me. There’s a bit of a same-ness problem with Lackey’s work. All of her books are easy reads that don’t require much effort or contemplation, but these are not “beach books.” They tend to be mostly dark and humorless (or, at least, I don’t appreciate Lackey’s sense of humor). There’s torture and/or rape and/or pedophilia in nearly every one of them! It seems like there are always long boring passages describing the way the magic system works, the source of the magic, or the way characters train to use magic. I tend to skim these sections — it just isn’t that interesting to me. Also, I think every one of Lackey’s books includes at least one laughably over-the-top villain.
The Oathbound feels like most of the other VALDEMAR books I’ve read. It has all the features mentioned above. Notably, there is a lot of rape, including gang-rape and rape used as punishment. Many readers will find this aspect of the book quite horrifying.
The Oathbound feels unfocused at times — our heroes seem to have multiple goals (revenge, gain reputation, rebuild clan, find mate, help abused women) that sometimes conflict. It feels like Lackey wasn’t sure who she wanted Tarma and Kethry to be. That may be why The Oathbound feels episodic, more like a collection of short stories than a novel. (It is also possible that the novel started out as a collection of stories.)
One interesting feature of the book is an asexual character. Though she’s a woman, Tarma doesn’t really seem to identify with either sex and doesn’t seem to have any sexual feelings at all. And, of course, I should clearly say that a female sword-and-sorcery duo, published in the 1980s, was groundbreaking.
I read The Oathbound because Tantor Audio recently released an audiobook edition. It’s 11 hours long and narrated by Christa Lewis, an award-winning voice artist. I have never been a fan of the “high class/aristocratic” English accent (I’m not sure what to call it) that she uses for Kethry. She uses this voice in every book, I think, and it has finally begun to irritate me, but I am pretty sure this is my problem. I do like her other voices and I don’t hesitate to recommend this version.
The Oathbound is followed by Oathbreakers and Oathblood. The good news is that I’ve read Oathbreakers and I liked it a lot better than this book.