Remember 1988? I don’t, not really—but then, I was two at the time.
People who were older than two in 1988 might remember Helen S. Wright’s A Matter of Oaths. Or then again, they might not: Wright seems to have published precisely one novel (at least, under that name) and at the time, it received little acclaim.
Nigh on thirty years later, republished with a foreword by Becky Chambers, I have to hope its fate will be vastly different. Because A Matter of Oaths deserves your attention. (And it’s one of those books, like Swordspoint, that I honestly didn’t think anyone was publishing in the eighties until I read it.)
The Bhattya is a patrol ship in a universe divided between two immortal emperors. Ships are piloted and largely crewed by webbers—humans who’ve been modified in order to pilot and navigate the ship in the depths of space, using something called the web. The Guild of Webbers basically rules space travel, and maintains its independence from either emperor. Under Guild rules, each ship is commanded by a triumvirate with different skillsets: Webmaster (with responsibility for the ship’s web and webbers), Commander (with responsibility for fighting the ship) and Captain (with responsibility for the ship’s cargo and the ship’s physical structures).
Bhattya’s Three are looking for a new first officer for their webbers. Rallya, their Commander, is old, acerbic, and has high standards. She’s extremely competent, and she also enjoys needling people, the kind of strong personality who runs roughshod over people who don’t stand up to her, has no patience for fools, and also has a strong sense of duty. Bhattya‘s Webmaster, Joshim, is concerned that Rallya’s web reflexes will deteriorate over the next five years—as is natural with age—and believes that they should look for a first officer (a First) who can stand up to her, become her protégé, and eventually move into her role.
Enter Rafell (“Rafe”), an absurdly young-looking brevet First who’s lost the only ship he ever remembers serving on. Rafe has pretty much every qualification Bhattya’s Three might look for, but there’s one small problem: His record notes that he was subject to a memory wipe to enforce his compliance with the Guild’s Oath. Oathbreakers aren’t held in high regard: Few webbers can really imagine doing such a thing. Rafe has come to accept that he’ll never have another ship, and therefore he has nothing left to lose.
But when he games Rallya to a draw in a tactical simulation, Rallya finds no place for her objections. And Joshim sees him first for his skill, rather than his past. Bhattya wants Rafe aboard—but what none of them realise, not even Rafe himself, is that his forgotten past is more complicated that anyone might guess. And it hasn’t left him entirely behind.
A Matter of Oaths has two (or maybe three, depending on how you want to count the love interest) main protagonists. Rallya’s an older woman, of a kind that’s rarely depicted sympathetically in fiction. And Rafe, well. Rafe and Joshim are both men, and they end up lovers and strongly in love. And—in part because of this—Rafe gradually starts to recover pieces of his memory. Rafe’s memory-wipe isn’t as simple as the consequences of oath-breaking. It’s tangled up in politics, both regarding the Guild and the two emperors, and uncovering the reasons behind it, uncovering Rafe’s past, may change the trajectory of galactic affairs in the present.
And as far as I can tell, the majority of characters in A Matter of Oaths aren’t white.
This is a vivid, vital and energetic space opera, full of incident and emotion. It’s vision of a space-faring society doesn’t seem out of place to a contemporary reader, the way many other future visions of the eighties and nineties do, because Wright’s space opera includes in positive, sympathetic ways people that those other visions leave out—like women reluctantly nearing retirement after a long career and men who love men.
And, just in case I failed to mention? It’s really compelling and a hell of a lot of fun. I recommend it highly. GO AND READ IT.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.