Aug 9 2011 6:07pm

Two Empires, One Guild: Helen Wright’s A Matter of Oaths

I mentioned A Matter of Oaths (1988) here before when the author made the e-version available for free download. (It’s still available free at that link, or you can make a donation if you like it.) It’s a book I really like because it’s so much fun. It’s unashamed space opera, and it has great characters. There are two empires, each with an immortal emperor. There’s one guild of webbers who steer faster-than-light ships around the universe using a brain-implanted web that networks with the ship’s web and the webs of other webbers. When ships move from one empire to the other, they have to change their allegiance too, and any webbers who refuse have their memories wiped except for their professional knowledge. Rafe is a webber who has had such a wipe. The book begins with him being considered for a place aboard the patrolship Bhattya.

The strengths of the book lie in characterisation and the complexity of the world. There are a number of things it does extremely well, and they are the same kinds of things Cherryh does — I think it’s reasonable to say that if you like Merchanter’s Luck (post) or Rimrunners (post) then you will like this, though it isn’t so grim. But there are ships and stations and escort duty and betrayals. There’s an older female captain who used to be the best, but who sees her reflexes starting to fade. There’s a sweet gay romance, without any fuss made about it. There’s the mystery of Rafe’s identity and what the mindwipe may be hiding. And there are also, particularly towards the end, huge coincidences.

This is a first novel, and it has the strengths and flaws typical of first novels — a wonderful well thought out background, deeply developed characters, and a desire to fit a quart of plot into a pint’s worth of pages. It’s an ambitious book where the questions are better than the answers. But it’s worth reading even so, because the characters are so good and the experience of reading is such fun. And I first read it in 1988 and I keep coming back to it from time to time because it does so many things right and because I like to hang out with the characters.

I most recently read this on a trans-Atlantic flight that was six hours late leaving Amsterdam. I didn’t want to stop reading to eat, and I almost wanted to finish it more than I wanted to sleep when I got home. Wright has never published anything else, but she says she’s planning to get back to writing. I’ll certainly buy whatever she produces.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Audrey Hollinger
1. AwesomeAud
I recently read the book on your recommendation, and I did like it a lot. I am certainly going to be rereading this on a regular basis!

The only problem I had was a bit of terminology; all webbers swear allegiance to the Guild of Webbers and then to the Emperor which they serve, but if a ship is captured by the other Empire, then the crew must refute its oath to the previous Emperor, and swear a new oath to the new Emperor. And the people who won't just dump their old allegiances are called 'oathbreakers'? Somehow, that doesn't seem right to me.
Leilani Cantu
2. spanishviolet
Sounds like great fun. I'm looking forward to reading it!
Kai in NYC
3. Kai in NYC
I thought I was the only person who knew about this book--it's one of my favorites!  Glad to see it written up here.  I habitually type Helen Wright's name into amazon to see if she's written anything else.  It's good to hear she's getting back into it.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Kai: It is a book that didn't get much publicity, despite having a Cherryh quote and having US and UK editions. I think the people who found it liked it, but there weren't enough of us.
Paul Howard
5. DrakBibliophile
AwesomeAud, as I remember it the webber's first (most important) oath was to the Guild and the Guild was the group who required them to refute their oath to their prior Emperor.

If they didn't do so, they were breaking their oath to the *Guild* which was why they were called Oathbreakers.
Audrey Hollinger
6. AwesomeAud
Thank you, DrakBibliophile, that explains it nicely. :)

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