[WIR, What Hath Gone Before] Oathbreakers
RPG.net link here.
In which…goddamnit, just read the summary.
This book, man. This goddamn book. Ok. First act is mostly fine, but with one big warning bell. Here, Tarma and Kethry have signed on with an elite mercenary company, and we follow them on a campaign. It continues to level-set them as high-level D&D characters. That warning sign, however, is the complete disconnect between what the book tells us and what it shows us in terms of women on the battlefield. The book (and other books) tell us that women make up a distinct plurality of the combat forces. What it shows us, however, is that of the characters who we don’t get zoomed in on, and who aren’t both important and on the protagonist’s side, none are women.
Now, my hope was that we’d follow up on the last story of Oathbound with the realization that in a world with equal-opportunity brigandage and robbery, having a magic sword that put you always and irrevocably on the side of women could very often be a crippling weakness. But we don’t get that. Apparently, the idea that someone could be a woman and oppose the protagonists while not being a demonic thrall who went through an involuntary gender-swap didn’t occur to the author.
OK. So, not great, but not terrible. Then we get into the meat of the book, and things start looking really interesting. The commander of their mercenary company (who was in the line of succession of a generic far-off nation, but left because it was a nest of vipers and backstabbing and she wanted an honest career of mercenary work) gets news that things are afoot in her home country, heads back, and then apparently vanishes, and now our protagonists need to head to a strange land, to deal with a problem of intrigue and politics, neither of which are skills in their wheelhouses.
And this works really well! We get tension built because there are other mages and so Kethry can’t just roll over the opposition like she’s done before, Tarma has to deal with the fact that her people have a very poor reputation in this nation, and the one person who looks like he’s able to give them a straight answer on what’s going on doesn’t trust either of them as far as he can throw them, and he’s middle-aged with a chronic health condition of some sort.
Then there’s an assassination attempt on the guy which the protagonists foil, the team has to hit the road in a hurry, while pursued by shadowy magical agents. Things are exciting now! The team has a path into their investigation, they can pit their skills against the specific problem facing them, and then…
Then it all falls apart. No, wait, it’s worse than that. Then it all falls together. Then the story abandons abandons even the pretense of dramatic tension.
There is again a warning sign in the fact that Team Heroine finds a legendary magic sword on a random dead body while crossing a winter pass. This is basically Excalibur for the nation they’re from, and can in theory resolve the succession crisis (but they don’t know this yet.) Now, this is stupidly convenient, but hey, protagonists tripping over legendary magic swords goes back to Tolkien, so there’s nothing too outrageous here.
Then the team crosses over into Valdemar, meets a Herald, and Tarma’s interventionist goddess does step down to let her know that she’s got the combined divine go-ahead from both her and Team QHAT, and OK, that was worrying from a dramatic point of view, but in keeping with both her and the Companions, so again, not outrageous.
Then Kethry becomes an Adept. Adepts are the name-level of the wizarding world in Valdemar. They’re the highest rank of wizard there is; they’re the Plot Device Wizards Who Did It, who are involved in all of the legendary acts of historical magic.
And Kethry’s still a D&D character, so OK, having the little bit of quest XP bump her into taking that Archmage prestige class is a little disjointed from a dramatic point of view, but I buy it.
Then we finally meet the pursuit. He’s another Adept. Another, much-more-experienced Adept. And of course there’s a random out-of-nowhere Adept dueling protocol where they show off their spirit animals and the like, and it’s at this point that a fell premonition creeps over me.
There is one way this fight should go. This is someone who just got their black belt stepping into the ring for their first black-belt-on-black-belt match with a 5th dan veteran. If the story wants me to take the idea of magic ranks and experience meaning anything, Kethry needs to lose this fight.
She wins, of course, but her opponent cheats! He secreted a golem under the combat area, which unburies itself and mauls Kethry! Happily, this the exact kind of golem that the team’s cranky sick old guy happens to know the secret weakness of (and Evil Adept apparently doesn’t), so he takes out the golem. And in a scene which is actually decently-written, Tarma calls on divine intervention for Kethry to be healed, and gets it. And that, by itself, wouldn’t have been terrible, but it on top of everything else cements that nothing seriously bad is going to be allowed to happen to our heroines for the rest of the book.
The book, of course, doesn’t even pretend to ask “Why, if Adepts are such hot shit, didn’t the Adept following them overtake them and do something? Why, if Adept magic can be made undetectable to non-Adepts, did Kethry get wind of him following them in the first place? And what’s the plan for all of the other mages back in the capital, many of whom are presumably also Adepts, since they could spare sending this guy out on a rather random mission of questionable utility?”
Instead, the heroines enact their plan, and this is where I go from disappointed to darkly, bitterly amused. See, the title of the book is Oathbreakers, because there’s some ancient ritual mystical stuff about mercenaries and oaths. There’s a doom ritual that can be pronounced on oathbreakers and traitors to declare then anathema, but it requires a mage, a cleric, and an honest man all wronged by someone, and its effects are questionable and mystic. So of course we’re going to get our heroines (and less-sick-under-magic-HMO-plan guy). But first we need the dirt on the guy in charge. And how do our honorable mercenary heroines get it? Disguise Tarma as someone else, join his guard, take his money and swear falsely to serve him, and then pump him for information.
It works, of course. Guy in Charge drove out his good brother and had Mercenary Sister killed in the designated way Romantic Fantasy villains have women killed, of course. Despite being described as competent at plotting and intrigue, he suspects nothing when his Adept never reports back, of course.
Team Heroine get word back to their company and they infiltrate the kingdom in small groups, to form the core of a revolutionary army. This goes smoothly, of course. Kethry comes up with a revolutionary new kind of magic trap she can drop on the opposing mages all at once to neutralize them. It works perfectly and none of them do anything else in the story, of course.
Kethry blasts aside all opposition with overwhelming magic as the coup attempt happens. They run down the evil prince, and Tarma captures him because he trusts her guise. Then they drag him to some ritual area where they call up the ghost of Mercenary Captain, she kills him horribly over a long period of time, then they drag out his body to the people of the nation, proclaim that Good Brother With Excalibur is king now, and everyone is happy. The end.
It really didn’t help that I was reading Honor and Violence in the Old South at the same time as this book. But really, consider this in the general case. You’ve got Group A who is out to avenge a slight on their honor. They invoke harm done to one of their women by a perfidious member of group B. So they smuggle in large numbers of people, attack from surprise, overwhelm group B’s defenses, kill a fair number of group B, torture the accused member of group B to death, then parade around his body while also showing off their numbers and martial power.
In what world are we supposed to assume Group A are the good guys? Team Heroine could have done a thousand things differently. They could have quietly assassinated Evil Prince for ages, and with Kethry’s Adept super-magic, made it look like an accident. They could have saved dozens of their own lives and who knows how many lives of their enemies. But they wanted a big fight where everyone would see what happens when you cross Team Heroine. It wasn’t about justice, or saving future victims of Evil Prince. It wasn’t even about revenge. It was about having their honor satisfied, and having the world know what happened to people who cross Team Heroine.
There is a silver lining to this, however. This book does have Team Heroine retire, as far as I can tell. And as far as I can tell, at some point between this and the next series, Mercedes Lackey has her own “Hans, are we the baddies?” moment. And the next series, set in Valdemar’s Past, is the Last Herald Mage series, and goes in a very different and much more interesting direction.