[WIR, What Hath Gone Before] Oathbound
RPG.net link here.
In which the warrior Tarma and the mage Kethry, the wolfcat Warrl, and the incredibly sexist magical sword Need travel the lands, exploring, leveling up, and having very specific adventures; in which my opinion of Mercedes Lackey’s writing bounced around a great deal; in which a great many apostrophes are pronounced; in which a lesson of great import is learned and forgotten.
This series, man. This goddamn series.
OK. I need to talk about some general theory-of-writing stuff first. You can tell an X-men story in which mutants are a stand-in for some disadvantaged minority, and show them being wrongly shunned or disdained for their differences. You can tell a story in which there is a strong faction of evil mutants lead by Magneto, bent on securing a future for his people through acts of terrorism and violence. But you really can’t tell both stories at once unless you want to end up crossing the streams, and giving the bigots from the first half solid ammunition for their opinions in the second half.
And this leads directly to the structural problem that underlies both this book and the next; it wants to tell a story in which Tarma and Kethry travel the lands, have adventures, and save women from the tyranny of patriarchy. But it also wants to tell a story in which women don’t actually suffer any structural disadvantages, and in which they make up a significant percentage of the combat arms, magic users, and leadership. There are many individual problems which our duo need to address, and address them they do, and there are only a few points where our heroines explicitly ignore the plight of men because they are men, but it happens, and it grates.
There’s also a lot of protagonist-centered morality. Tarma in particular gets away with a huge number of threats to life and limb, both covert and overt, that would peg any non-protagonist as a villain and a bully, and Kethry…
OK, let’s just go right to the nadir of this mess. It’s one of the earliest stories written, if I recall correctly. The base structure of the story is as follows; a merchant wants to hire Tarma and Kethry to deal with bandits that are attacking his wagons and leaving no survivors. T&K don’t care, of course, as they save women, and Mercedes Lackey doesn’t take seriously her assumption that women are well-represented in the actual footschlogger rank of combatants who wade through the mud, take the unglamorous guard duty posts, and die in droves when someone interesting or dangerous shows up. Thankfully, the merchant also lost some younger female relatives that were being escorted and who of course have suffered the default fate of female captives in romantic fantasy, so the team is happy spending their time on this.
Kethry does some magic, finds out that the bandits have some unspecified magic of their own, and comes up with a plan. She’ll magically disguise the three of them into looking like civvies (and a dog in Warrl’s case), follow along with the caravan after making an entrance looking rich and tempting, then kick ass when the bandits show up.
The plan works flawlessly, of course. The magic is identified as one bandit who has a psychic gift to make him appear as someone generically trustworthy from your past when you see him; he’s been infiltrating the guards and feeding information to the bandits about when and where to strike. Since Tarma and Kethry didn’t tell the guards they were agents of stabbing, he called for the attack.
The attack happens. Many caravan guards die. Only after that do Tarma and Kethry join the fray, tearing through the bandits like the high-level D&D characters they are. They win the day, and as punishment for his sins, Kethry uses magic to muck with the psychic gift of the infiltrator bandit, making his appearance affect now stuck on the vapid civilian woman disguise she was using, before stripping him, tying him to a horse, and sending him back to the remaining bandits to receive his justified, rapey deserts.
The thing is, this terrible story was followed immediately by another, much more interesting story. That bandit didn’t actually exit stage left. He survived, stuck around, and in the process of looking for any way to reverse Kethry’s curse, ended up calling down and falling victim to a powerful demon lord, who was only defeated by Tarma and Kethry once through his arrogance and his failure to read the Evil Overlord list, specifically the entries on trying to marry people who want to kill you.
Round two with the prepared demon lord goes a whole lot worse for Tarma and Kethry, due to the demon lord being clever, and Need being terrible.
Let’s talk about Need. Need is a magical sword meant to serve and protect women. Only women can use its magical powers, and in addition to magic resistance and healing the bearer, it compels them to seek out and protect women. It’s not specified what happens if you hurt a woman while wielding Need, but both the demon lord and Kethry consider head-explosion a plausible response.
Now, keep in mind that the author has already written Hulda, a delightfully sadistic and conniving mage and spymistress from the last book. Here, we need to get demon body-swapping shenanigans to produce a woman to fight Kethry and make her risk Ironic Death. The story finishes (extremely unsatisfyingly) when an out-of-left-field 20th-level cleric wanders in and casts the right bodyswap spell at the right moment, so everyone ends up back in their body (if they’re a hero), dead (if they’re that bandit Kethry fucked up long ago), or trapped in an unpowered human female body (if they’re a demon lord).
And so the ending of the story (which was the last in the book) was terrible and unsatisfying. But maybe that was the point, I thought. Maybe this was Mercedes Lackey saying to me “Actually, on reflection, a sword that assumes virtue based on sex is a terrible goddamn idea and any group of adventurers who relied on such a thing would need goddman divine intervention to not die the minute they took it into the field.” This story was the first time we’d seen a villain recur, and having him recur in a way that drew attention to the fucked-up-edness of how Kethry sent him off boded well.
And so, it was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and full of high expectations, that I started the next book.