BOOK REVIEW: A Matter of Oaths

A Matter of Oaths

Title: A Matter of Oaths

Author: Helen S. Wright

Publisher: Bloomsbury Caravel

Published: 23/11/17

RRP: £13.99

Originally published in 1988, A Matter of Oaths is a space opera with heart, intergalactic intrigue and epic space battles. With a new introduction by science fiction author Becky Chambers in which she writes: ‘Here, you’ll find women of war, sex without shame, people of every hue, and love that dances freely among genders. Timeless pieces of our species’ existence.’
Compared to authors such as C. J. Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold, Wright had to stick to her vision when it came to Rafe, a man at the centre of an interstellar conspiracy, who also happens to be gay, and a person of colour. The book was rejected by one editor because the gay relationship was too integral to the plot, and when a publisher did decide to take her on, the covers were whitewashed with Rafe being portrayed as white, and the aging commander Rallya presented as a nubile young woman. This time around we were determined to be true to this engaging, diverse space opera.

The novel follows Commander Rallya of the patrol ship Bhattya as she hires Rafe as their new Web officer. As an oath breaker, Rafe has suffered the ultimate punishment – identity wipe – but luckily for him, there’s no one else around qualified for the job. Shunned by his previous shipmates, Rafe is ready to keep his head down and do his job, but his competence quickly earns him respect, admiration, and, in one particular case, love. It’s difficult to maintain the glow of acceptance however, when his past is chasing him across the galaxy in the shape of an assassin, intent on dealing once and for all with Rafe, whatever the cost. It is with great pleasure and excitement that we are able to bring this fantastic science fiction classic back to a whole new generation of readers.

This book came at fortuitous time for me. I had not read a significant amount of science fiction from the mid 1980s to the 2000s (as, like in Chambers’ introduction, I was either not born or too young). Then recently I picked up in quick succession Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty, Pat Cadigan’s Synners and Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, loving them all.

Buoyed by this success, I announced an ambitious odyssey to fill in the gaps with the “big books” from this missing era in my knowledge. Unfortunately, the novels I began picking up from the end of the eighties mostly ranged from just pretty good to very dull. Very little had yet reached the height of that opening quintet.

In the midst of this landed a copy of a Matter of Oaths, a book I had not heard of and only going off the description:

Originally published in 1988, it is a space opera with heart, intergalactic intrigue and epic space battles. With a new introduction by science fiction author Becky Chambers.

Yet from the opening section “From introductory material for new members of the Guild of Webbers” I knew this was precisely what I had been looking for.

The genre given for this is Diverse Science Fiction and that is a very good description of it- comparisons to Cherryh and Bujold are correct and obvious. However, it also seems to emerge from the experimental space operas of Samuel R. Delany, and takes elements from various different subfields of science fiction to bring about something very much like the character driven space opera we see today, from writers such as Leckie, Hurley, and Chambers herself.

By character driven space opera I mean a very specific form of space opera. For whilst the earliest space operas would indeed have interpersonal drama, this is sometimes in service of the plot. A method to get character 1 into situation A, so character 2 will get into situation B and they can be dramatically reunited in situation C. In the character driven space opera I am referring to, the interstellar trappings themselves (space battles, planet hopping, on-ship intrigue etc.) are more a method to explore the cast and their relationships, not the other way around. That is not to say the world is not interesting or the plot exciting (for indeed they are) but rather the central core is the characterisation itself.

And this is where the book excels. The romance at the centre is beautiful and exploratory, with even the sex being carefully constructed to really give us insight into how the characters themselves work. At the same time so much of the book is about power dynamics and how in this complex system people interact with one another. And most importantly, what is the nature of forgiveness and redemption.

If you want to know why I am talking around so many of the particulars it is because one of the biggest flaws. Simply it is that this book is very short. Whilst I am a fan of brevity in general there is so much fitted into such a small text the events can feel a bit too compressed and leaves you feeling hungry for more events in this world that will not come.

Nevertheless the short time we spend in this universe is wonderful and it is another fine novel fully deserving of the republishing it is getting.

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Kris Vyas-Myall

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