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A Matter of Oaths

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Commander Rallya of patrolship Bhattya thought she had a talent for making enemies--until she met Rafe. For no crime on his record, the young officer had been identity wiped, and his innumerable, now-forgotten enemies were still tracking him across the galaxy.

234 pages, Paperback

First published October 1, 1988

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About the author

Helen S. Wright

11 books7 followers
Helen S. Wright is a British author, born in Birmingham in 1958. She attended King Edward VI High School for Girls and then studied physics at Imperial College, London before going on to work over a thirty-year period in a wide variety of Information Technology roles in the electricity generation and supply industry. Her first novel, A Matter of Oaths, originally published in 1988, has been revived by Bloomsbury Caravel for a whole new generation of readers. She never married, and currently lives on the Gloucester/Wiltshire border.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 114 reviews
Profile Image for K.J. Charles.
Author 59 books8,125 followers
December 21, 2017
What a fabulous read. A space opera with a twisty SF based plot and loads of heart. Exciting and engaging--the worldbuilding isn't spoon fed so it takes a bit of time to get to grips but all becomes clear soon enough.

It's the cast that does it for me. The three MCs are two men in a queer relationship, one of them bi, and the commander who is not only a woman of colour but pushing retirement age with a dodgy hip. Fffff. When the hell do you see that in a MC? *And* she isn't a Wise Mentor character. She is stroppy and flawed and makes mistakes as well as getting things right. I love her.

An older WOC as main character is gold dust in SF. A positive loving queer relationship with no homophobia still isn't as common as it should be. And this book was written in the 80s. The 80s. I could have been reading this instead of a million Whitey McHetWhite identiheroes. Gah.

Loved it, big rec.
Profile Image for Justine.
1,133 reviews309 followers
October 12, 2019
Don't let the age (or outdated cover, if your version has that) of this one fool you. Originally published in 1988, A Matter of Oaths truly deserved the resurrection and republication (with a much better cover) that it got nearly 30 years later in 2017.

The writing has a modern feel to it that keeps it from feeling dated. The straightforward and issue-free incorporation of various genders, sexualities, and skin colours reminded me of writers like Ann Leckie and Becky Chambers, who write stories where diversity just "is" rather than being something needing explanation or rationale.

The story itself is nicely paced and interesting, with relationships playing as much a part of the story as any action and intrigue. Really, a nice surprise in just how enjoyable it was.
Profile Image for Sherwood Smith.
Author 168 books37.5k followers
October 5, 2014
Read this thoroughly enjoyable space opera on a very long train ride. From the beginning, when the chief officers of the Bhattya look for a new candidate and consider Rafe, a highly talented young webber (this is cybertech that borders on telepathy) but whose identity was wiped for betraying the Oath, the story grabbed me.

The world building is a bit fuzzy--so much crammed in that is not explained--but the story itself rockets along, with a wonderfully diverse set of characters. Rafe proves himself to Rallya, a tough, aging commander who knows she is losing some of her edge, and to Joshim, the webmaster, and is accepted on board. Within a short time Rafe and Joshim connect in a way that becomes vitally important to the events that begin to unfold, accelerating to extremely high stakes.

There is so much unexplained, or I should say unexplored in this universe. I was glued to the pages in my Kindle until we reached the end, leaving me hoping that the author will get back to this world, though this book came out in 1988.
Profile Image for Kaa.
560 reviews51 followers
January 26, 2020
I just really freaking love a good, well-balanced space opera - interesting characters, creative spaceship "science", some politics, some fighting... A Matter of Oaths is another shining example of the genre, with the bonus of a wonderfully diverse cast and queer characters without any homophobia (or sexism, for that matter). The process of webbing is another hand-wavy but pleasingly fantastical method of piloting a spaceship/FTL travel, and I have to admit I prefer this type of bordering-on-magic "technology" to easily disprovable, quickly outdated more "scientific" varieties. Honestly, it's sort of astonishing that this was written back in the 80s - it's held up much better than some much more recent stories. I only wish there were more books in this series/world - there's so much left unexplained and unexplored that it's a shame the author hasn't written more.
Profile Image for Lindsay.
1,263 reviews222 followers
October 18, 2019
There's little sign of this being a thirty-year old book. It's diverse, interesting and completely avoids most of the things that unavoidably date science fiction to the time it was written.

Rallya is the Commander of a patrol ship and a member of the Guild of Webbers. The Guild maintains Oaths equally to both the old and new Empires who are at war with each other. The Emperors each have their own Oaths with the Webbers and it's a system that mostly works. When Rallya takes on a memory-wiped Rafe as her new First, it's a catalyst for political intrigue between the empires with Rallya's ship caught in the middle.

I can see why this has been recently republished. It reminds me strongly of the sort of thing C.J. Cherryh does in her Alliance-Union books, and in a similar fashion to those books, it feels equally timeless, but unlike those books the diversity in skin colour and sexuality is everywhere and effortless.

All that being said, this suffers greatly from what's not on the page. Too much is left hidden or unsaid. Why are the Emperors immortal? Why do they know what they know about Rafe? What is Rafe anyway? (The book says he's an almost-human hybrid ... and doesn't go into any more detail than that.) It's hard to say whether the author intended more books to explain herself, or whether this was just a poorly edited book. Either way, it doesn't appear that there's going to be anything else written in this universe, and what's here is enough to tease a much greater universe with mysteries that will never be answered.
Profile Image for Veronique.
1,231 reviews169 followers
October 21, 2019

A Matter of Oaths was originally published in 1988, disappeared from sight, and was finally brought back to us in 2017, with a proper cover (no more whitewashing) and a brilliant introduction from Becky Chambers, which is how I found it. For an 'older' novel, it does feel very modern, at turns a space opera with conflicting politics, but mostly focusing on the characters and their interactions.

Wright’s world is diverse and inclusive, where people’s gender, colouring or sexuality, don’t need to be explained, which was refreshing, especially considering when it was written. Her choice of main characters is telling too. Imagine - an older woman of colour nearing her retirement as a commander, with a cantankerous temperament to boot, and an impertinent but brilliant young man who seems to bring trouble wherever he is. I loved it.

Maybe it was inevitable to be reminded of Bujold and Cherryh but the style here is very different. The author unveils her world little by little, not offering every single detail, which sometimes is a little frustrating. Don’t get me wrong - the world building is fascinating, but we’re so used these days to having weighty tomes, or indeed trilogies, that explain everything, that it is a little of a shock. This works both ways. On the positive, you get a great narrative, full of pacing, that can be read quickly. On the other side, if you’re invested, you may well want more (but then, we always want more! LOL).

I really enjoyed discovering this little gem. It is far from perfect, the last third could have been perhaps a little tighter, but totally worth reading it.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,009 followers
June 22, 2018
Throughout reading this, there were basically two major thoughts in my mind: one, why didn’t I read this sooner? And two: fans of Ann Leckie and Becky Chambers are probably the ideal audience (and maybe fans of Yoon Ha Lee, as well). And hurrah! It’s been republished recently, so it’s out there and ready to be picked up by just those people. I can’t quite put my finger on all of the things that reminded me of those authors, but nonetheless, remind me it did (without them being in any way derivative — that’s not what I’m saying).

Worldbuilding? Got it in spades. A unique way of interfacing between ship and crew, two warring empires, a mystery plot that turns out to reflect on the politics quite significantly, overt and perfectly matter of fact queerness… I loved the characters, even though they have their flaws (and I think I’d have liked to see more of Vidar, who kept fading in and out). I loved the way things came together, one question raising other questions while answering things you wouldn’t expect it to answer. And I read it really fast, too: I’d look up and I’d be 50 pages down the line with no real sense of time having passed.

And the ending. So much potential, without the need for more but just… telling you that more is there: the world goes on after you’ve left, as it began before you arrived. I’d love more time with Rafe and Joshim and Rallya; I’ll probably eventually reread this to get that. But the ending in itself is satisfactory and doesn’t, to my mind, leave anything hanging in a bad way.

I’m trying to think if I have criticisms, and really, I don’t. What the hey: I’m going for five stars here.

Reviewed for The Bibliophibian.
Profile Image for Lata.
3,599 reviews192 followers
November 1, 2019
There were many things I liked about this novel that, while published many years ago, doesn’t have that stale, unpleasant feeling that some older genre books can achieve:
-An actual older woman in charge of a ship, and who wasn’t simply someone’s grandmother. Rallya’s prickly and strategic and mischievous and stubborn, and also reminded me of C.J. Cherryh’s Ilsidi (my favourite character in her “Foreigner” series.)
-A person of colour main character, Rafe, is central to the action.
-An adult, respectful, loving relationship between Rafe and another main character, Joshim.
-The book’s revamped cover.

There were also some things I didn’t feel were particularly clear and if they had been explained or elaborated in a second book would have helped me understand the setting or plot better:
-What’s the situation with other, nonhuman races?
-The political situation within the Guild.
-The socio-political situation within the population. Stuff’s alluded to, but I wanted a bit more detail.

Despite the above points, I came away from this book really liking it.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,689 reviews637 followers
August 11, 2019
First published in 1988, ‘A Matter of Oaths’ reads like a precursor to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogies. All three are military sci-fi in the same way that Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin Series are military historical; they’re set on ships but the plots are centred upon the crew. ‘A Matter of Oaths’ begins with a ship taking on a new officer with a mysterious, not to say opaque, past. Rafe has had his identity wiped for oath-breaking, yet his previous life becomes increasingly intrusive with time. As with Leckie and Ha Lee’s novels, the plot essentially amounts to office politics writ large across an interstellar navy. This is an approach that I really enjoy: character-driven narrative within a carefully structured and densely imagined future world. ‘A Matter of Oaths’ has an appealing cast of main characters and technological details that have aged pretty well. Spaceships are operated via webbing, which is similar to jacking into the Matrix and has an interesting set of drawbacks and limitations. It requires careful training, talent, and body modification. The experience is addictive and only allowed within a carefully controlled Guild system. Also akin to Leckie and Ha Lee’s worlds, but more unusual for a thirty year old novel, are the casual acceptance of bisexuality and gender fluidity.

I would have liked to have spent longer amid the culture of the two empires, as I found the setting very intriguing. A trilogy length of time, perhaps! The plot moves so fast that there isn’t time to learn a great deal, although I can't fault the good share of time given to character development. All told, a satisfying and entertaining space mystery complete with an excellent cast and exciting plot. As Becky Chambers laments in her introduction to the 2017 edition, I wish I’d come across it earlier. During my teenage years it would have made a really nice change from the frequently misogynistic and nearly always heteronormative sci-fi I was reading.
Profile Image for Megan.
455 reviews74 followers
January 8, 2019
Ok, first: IGNORE THE COVER. No, seriously just ignore that nonsensical, awful, whitewashed abomination, (unless the default art goodreads displays at some point gets swapped to the 2018 cover, which is actually quite nice and you can feel free to not ignore it).

Now that that's out of the way, I can tell you that this is a tremendously entertaining book. It was a quick read, and surprisingly easy too. One of those books you gulp down in a few sittings. There's a patrolship and it needs a new webber, "webbers" being the people who are trained to enter the "web" and control spaceships by kinda fusing their brains with them. This book takes the 'giving you just enough detail so you can kinda picture it,' approach to its science, which means you're not going to be confused about stuff but you'll also never be one hundred percent solid on what it all means either.

Anyway, so they need a new webber. Enter Rafe (who, sidebar, is such a Mary Sue, but who even cares we all need a little Mary Sue in our lives sometimes), a talented webber who has also had all his memories wiped for oath-breaking a few years ago. It means he's not exactly in demand, but the patrolship is desperate so they take him aboard anyway. And then they have to deal with the mess when people keep trying to MURDER HIM for MYSTERIOUS REASONS. It took me almost the whole book to figure out what the oath-breaking crime actually was, as this book is hella stingy with its worldbuilding. Which is a shame, because what we do see of the world is really, really cool. Made me think of Yoon Ha Lee mixed with Anne Leckie. Two immortal emperors, a universe divided between them, and an endless war.

It's not just the worldbuilding I wanted to see more of. Everything was just a little too shallow, a little too skimmed over. If it could have been longer, spent more time showing instead of telling... Like, Rafe and his superior start sleeping together after one minute (which is no big deal in this book, it has a very refreshing approach towards sex) and we are told that they are IN LOVE but we don't really see it, and this holds true for all the character relationships. This book could have been something I loved completely, instead of something I just really liked. Seems a petty thing to complain about, but it was frustrating, encountering all these plot twists and revelations that should have floored me but instead didn't really have much impact.

So yeah I guess my main complaint is that it was really good but not, like, really really good. Hardly damning praise. I'm really glad this book was reissued and brought to my attention, and I hope it's the start of a trend of digging up all the forgotten stories published by women over the years. You would never guess this book was published first in 1988, everything about it, from the sexuality to the world building, speaks directly to what's hot right now. Well, everything about it except that cover.
Profile Image for William.
675 reviews324 followers
May 4, 2018
3.5 stars - The first half is terrific, but the second half is a verbose, confusing mess, and abandons the Hero Rallya. Wright has talent, and I'm not sure what went wrong in 1987 for her. She had great promise, and is an enigma today, sadly. I wish she had tried again on a second and third book.

Note: Wow. Introduction by Becky Chambers!

As usual with my reviews, please first read the publisher’s blurb/summary of the book. Thank you.

Helen S. Wright has been an enigma for years now, but is writing again, I'm very happy to hear.

An Interview with Helen S. Wright, December 2017. Very illuminating.

What Happens When an Old Woman Steals Your Story? November 2017
Ms. Wright's notes on how this story came to be.

40% finished... Excellent, we now have a hero, on the Hero's Journey! Unfortunately, just as the book gets really good, it falls flat, hero abandoned.

Rallya smiled contentedly. No mistakes this time, she promised herself. Handle it slowly and carefully, like the explosive it was, and detonate it where it would have the most impact: under the [place]. There would not be many with anything to hide who would survive the shock waves that would travel through the [place]. Especially not those who had accepted the offers that Rallya had turned down thirty-five years ago. The ones who had achieved power since then because Rallya had spoken out too soon, before she had the whole picture. The ones who would soon learn that thirty-five years was not too long to wait to win a war. Unfortunately, the promise here is left unfulfilled.

...like most spectator sports, love was chiefly enjoyable for the incompetence of its participants. - Perhaps a clue as to what went wrong in Wright's life, something sad that took the joy from this book?

The last 1/3 of the book was a mess. Confusing, new characters momentarily, a focus on indecision and recriminations for past mistakes, and the delightful Rallya reduced to a whiny old woman.

Very sad.
Profile Image for Kitty G Books.
1,551 reviews2,937 followers
September 23, 2021
I picked this up for Space Opera September and it was an excellent choice. I had a lot of fun with this book and found myself drawn in quickly to the characters, the rival Empires, the mysterious Web and the plot. This universe is a divided one with two Emperors at the heart of it in an eternal war, the Old and the New. There is also the Guild, a supposedly impartial mediating body who hire ships out to the Emperors and who act as go-betweens.

We follow a ship which is looking for a new member of the crew and they happen across Rafe, our main character. Rafe is an Oath-breaker, someone who has had his identity wiped after breaking his oath in one of the Empires. He only remembers everything since the identity wipe, and he’s struggling to find a place on a ship with a Web because of his past. He needs access to a Web as he’s a Webber and without regular connection to the Web he will quickly deteriorate. His options look bleak until Rallya and Joshim offer him a place on their ship…

A lot of the story is focused on Rafe trying to uncover his past as it seems that it’s very relevant to the current war and its status. He is a complex character and he, Joshim and Rallya were all well done to the point that I genuinely felt invested in their stories. I liked following the discoveries and their way of dealing with the situations.

The world building is there but it’s background and muted and doesn’t feel as fleshed out as it could. This means for a fair bit of the world building you’re thrown into the deep end and have to just learn and uncover things as you go. It’s still an interesting dynamic, but it could have been a bit more developed I think.

The ending is dramatic and I feel as though I wish there was a sequel (pretty sure there isn’t) but I also liked the ending and I would say it played out well. A very enjoyable read with a few LGBTQ+ relationships as a big part of the plot and well handled too. 4.5*s from me.
Profile Image for Sineala.
712 reviews
December 21, 2012
I found this book on a recommendations list for people who like space opera in the manner of Bujold or Cherryh, and downloaded it immediately when I found out it was available on the author's website for free. I am really, really happy I found it.

It's a space opera set in a future where two empires are locked in war. Their ships, though, are piloted by the same people -- all members of the Guild. The Guild members are loyal to each other and the Guild above all else, and that includes imperial loyalty. If it so happens that you should be captured by the other side, you are required to serve them. If you refuse, you are branded an Oathbreaker -- and then you get mindwiped, so you serve them anyway.

The crew of the Bhattya is short one officer, and they take on the only person they find, who happens to be an Oathbreaker. His name's Rafe. And the thing is, Rafe's really good at this navigation thing. He's a lot better than he should be, and he knows a lot of things he probably shouldn't know -- but of course he doesn't know how he learned them, or who he used to be. And then it turns out people are trying to kill him. And then everyone on the Bhattya has to figure out who they want to trust and how much their Oaths matter.

The plot is exciting -- though there are a few really improbable coincidences toward the end -- and I loved the worldbuilding and the characters (strong women! queer characters! characters of color!), especially Rallya, Rafe, and Joshim. I should probably also mention that Rafe is queer and that his developing romance with Joshim, though it is not the focus of the book, is clearly very important to both of them. I love when gay characters get to have awesome SF adventures just like everyone else! I didn't know they were going to get together, so when it happened (fairly early on) it was a pleasant surprise; I had been really enjoying their dynamic before that. Rallya was also really interesting -- strong, commanding, competent, and still hanging in there even though they all know she's going to have to retire from active space duty soon.

Basically, I liked this book a whole lot and you should read it. Yeah. I wish I wrote better reviews, but trust me, it's good. It's totally the best space opera you've never heard of.
Profile Image for Vanessa.
302 reviews54 followers
June 9, 2019
This one seriously surprised me. I bought it on a whim, because sometimes I'm weak for old-ish books with praise from author's whose works have been on my "favorite books of all time list" for years on the cover (otherwise I don't care about that part of promotion at all).
Then I was in a reading slump and thought this one was short, so I might as well try it and for the first few pages it was just a comfortable read, but nothing special... and then I got invested. Now I'm actually super sad that this wasn't a.) longer and b.) doesn't have a sequel, cause I think there is a potential for one.

This tiny book made me care about some characters than a lot of longer books ever did. I thought they were all very realistic, with distinct personalities and a certain wiseness in different areas that comes with experience.

All three main characters were amazing and I rooted for them all - which doesn't happen all too often.

Comander Rallya is a woman who knows that she's better at a lot of things than other people. She's got more experience and knowledge in her little finger than others have in their whole body. She's abrasive, she's arrogant and she's impatient. She has no time for dumb people.
She's also witty, selfless, cares for her crew and delusional about how long she'll be able to continue commanding her ship. She does what needs to be done and has a good moral compass.

Joshim is just lovable. He's kind hearted, protective and always put others first. He's also firm with the people under his command and not afraid to piss people off, no matter how many high ranking connections they have, when he believes that they need a dressing down.

Rafe is basically our plot. Our crew meets him and the mystery surrounding him and the things that happen around him jumpstarts a series of events that will lead to a big change in the universe as our characters know it.
He's a mystery. Not just to the others, but also to himself. He got his memory wiped 10 years ago for doing one of the worst things someone can do in his profession: Breaking his Oath (implying that he must have been someone important enough to not execute). He doesn't know why. He doesn't know whom he used to be. He just know that someone might possibly trying to kill him and that he's so very good at his job that he can compete with Rallya on an almost equal level. He also knows that Joshim reminds him of someone in his past, making their relationship simple and complicated at the same time.

There are of course some secondary characters, who also manage to feel like real people in the limited page time they get.
I also thought the antogonist was a pretty unique mix of cliché and something new? I felt like I understood their reasoning for being the person they became. Good stuff.

So, this is a very character focused story with sprinkles of interesting questions sprinkled in, like what life would be like after you've been made to forget who you even are or what immortality (the two Emperors running the part of the universe our characters live in, are immortal) can or can't do to people.

Basically the only reason why I gave this 4 stars, instead of 5 is that because this book is so short, some things feel rushed and some feelings characters have about certain things or other people don't get explored as much as I'd have liked. I think this book should probably have 5-70 pages more than it does have.
Regardless, I obviously loved it. Glad to have accidently stumbled over this gem.
Profile Image for Bogi Takács.
Author 53 books565 followers
March 17, 2019
Review coming soonish in QUILTBAG+ Speculative Classics. I liked this book! Fun space opera, and it shows that the author knows about control systems. (YES PLEASE)
Source of the book: Bought with my own money (Publisher didn't respond to review copy request)
Profile Image for Jax.
845 reviews34 followers
February 12, 2023
Fun space opera. But it really throws you into the deep end. I kept thinking I missed reading a book 1. So some elements of this world weren’t explicitly explained, but I figured it out as I went (mostly/sorta).
Profile Image for David Harris.
872 reviews28 followers
December 9, 2017
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book.

A Matter of Oaths was, as the preface by Becky Chambers (The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit) makes clear in an interesting introduction first published in 1988 but seems to have gone relatively unnoticed then. Bloomsbury Caravel have now rescued it from obscurity and republished it.

The book certainly deserves that second chance, for at least two reasons.

First, we are endlessly told that women writing SFF, or SFF that features female or POC or LGBT protagonists, is a recent development (and, a certain sort of SFF fan implies, an unwelcome one which means sacrificing plot to diversity).

It shouldn't need saying, but both assertions are rubbish, and A Matter of Oaths is one data point that shows that argument up for what it is.

Secondly, it's simply a rattling good story, the sort that would capture the imagination of any space opera aficionado.

Prepare for a galaxy where endless war is fought between two immortal Emperors who have divided it between them; for modified humans ("webbers") who can mesh with their spaceships and who provide the forces who fight for both Emperors as part of a semi-independent Guild; a mysterious officer whose memory was wiped (a disgraceful thing, as it suggests he broke his Oath); Outsiders who menace the Empire's Convoys (and a very well realised escort sequence which made me recall CS Forrester's Hornblower novel - surely the original inspiration for this whole genre?); and real, credible human interactions between the ship's company.

Prepare to meet Rallya, Commander of the patrolship Bhattya, currently assigned to convoy escort duties, and her officers Vidar and Joshim. Rallya is a celebrated Commander, renowned for her abilities as a webber, but now ageing rather and facing the decay of those abilities. So she's apprehensive about her future, just as Joshim is facing up to the need to manage her replacement. As the story opens, though, these three are more concerned about filling their vacancy for a First Officer. A candidate presents himself - but it soon becomes clear that Rafe has something of a Past...

The plot is very much driven by the interaction between the four officers, and by the gradual unravelling of Rafe's memory-wipe. There's a background of high honour, as the title suggests: the Oaths sworn by the webbers, their Guild and by the two Emperors. For any to break these would put them outside the pale: but as becomes clear, that leaves plenty of scope for mischief (in which regard, I was reminded rather of the murky status of Asimov's Laws of Robotics).

Wright is especially good at taking her weird, hypothetical technologies and describing them so that they sound utterly unexceptional, part of everyday life. Of course a ship can't Jump when it's in the "mass shadow" of a space station or fleet. That just seems obvious. Of course the webbers would interact with the hardware using code systems such as "the standard fives used upon the cargoships, the eights of a surveyship, the extended tens of a patrolship". Just look at the passages where Rafe finds, commissions and explores an ancient web system ("He sent [Magnify] with a pointer to the area of the diagram and watched it reform on a larger scale, spanning four of his input matrices. he thought he would go crazy, shifting them from their old relationship to the new upside-down back-to-front world...") or where the team are engaged in combat with an Outsider raider.

I don't think I've seen such a convincing description of an invented technology since Terry Pratchett's history monks and their time cylinders (complete with load shedding). (I note from the biography on the Bloomsbury website that Wright worked "in a wide variety of Information Technology roles in the electricity generation and supply industry". Pratchett was at one time press officer in the Central Electricity Generating Board... I wonder if that industry spawned other first class SFF writers in the 1980s...)

She also makes the story seem vividly part of a larger whole, of being in media res, as though it's the middle volume of a trilogy - there is a central plot against the Empire which is partly, but not wholly resolved, leaving everything set up for a sequel; that ancient web which points to some previous story (plus the whole epic that's hinted at of the Empires being divided); Rallya's regrets over what happened thirty five years ago (no details are given) or Rafe's whole backstory.

Despite being nearly thirty years old, the story doesn't seem particularly dated (though of course the dominant technology being "The Web" made me smile) except perhaps that were this book written now it would probably be twice as long; there is little delay here between the ship setting out on a journey and it arriving. But that's not necessarily a bad thing!

To sum up, an engaging story that definitely has that stay-up-till-midnight, just-one-more-chapter vibe, that features a blazingly diverse cast of characters and that plays exuberantly in a convincing and feature-rich universe.

I wish I could read more about Rallya, Rafe & co.
Profile Image for Brownbetty.
343 reviews164 followers
November 6, 2019
This is a fascinating book as a historical artifact and fairly readable book as a book, so I hope I can tease out the differences.

As a book itself: The ship Bhattya needs a first officer, and when Rafe presents himself, he seems a very attractive prospect until Commander Rallya learns he has been mind-wiped; the punishment for an oath-breaker, which doesn't speak well for his character. Eventually, Rallya is persuaded to accept him onto her ship anyway; he's forthright about his history, and if anything, too good at his job.

Rafe doesn't know anything about his past before the mind-wipe, not even his name, but it becomes evident that his history remembers him; people keep trying to assasinate him, and Rallya doesn't like it when people interfere with her crew. She's willing to make herself unpopular trying to find out what is happening.

Rallya is one of the book's charms. She's kind of an asshole, the sort who wouldn't send you to poke a wasp's nest, but might not tell you about the wasp's nest, just to see how you'll deal with it.

As a historical artifact: This book was first published in 1988, and contains an m/m couple treated pretty neutrally; neither fetishized nor villainized. Rafe and Joshim begin sleeping together out of compatibility and proximity, and become closer with time, as one might. Later, we learn that two other men are obsessed with Rafe, but this is treated not as a matter of his great beauty or personal charms, but rather as fairly strong and inexplicable overreaction on the part of these men.

Another fun historical trace is the imagined communications of the future. Apprentices are sent running messages across the ship, and a major precipitating event is when they have to go into a library carrel on a specific space station to gain access to database in order to look up a public figure's biographical details. It is impossible to write an imagined future, now, in which instantaneous access to information and people is not ubiquitous, or if it is not, the author is required to explain why.
Profile Image for Jain.
214 reviews54 followers
September 8, 2019
Fun space opera with a lovely queer romance and interesting characters. I especially liked the aging but forceful female commander, the highly principled webmaster, and the amnesiac oathbreaker. The ebook is available for free on the author's website; if any of the above piques your interest, why not grab the book and check it out for yourself? [ETA: The book has since been republished and is no longer available for free.]

Enjoyable as it is, it does have some pretty big flaws. The worldbuilding is intriguing but rather too incomplete. In particular, there are a couple of immortal emperors whose immortality is never explained, which feels like an increasingly glaring omission as the story progresses. The ending is far too abrupt: at a certain point, the plot rockets to its climax and the denouement is almost nonexistent. And Wright should have excised about 90% of her adverbs and used the word "said" a lot more frequently, rather than various synonyms for the word.

Still, I had a great time reading the book (when my fingers weren't itching for a red pen), and I look forward to rereading it sometime.
285 reviews1 follower
October 20, 2013
I am disappointed that this is the only science fiction that Ms. Wright wrote. You are not spoon fed everything. There is background that needs to be inferred. Great world-building. It is the story of Rafe and his struggle to recall his life before a mind-wipe and why others want to make sure he never remembers. He finds a place for himself and works to build his life. There are solid supporting characters and realistic relationships. I thought it was a great book and would have been delighted to read more by this author.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,012 reviews39 followers
January 20, 2021
A Matter of Oaths by Helen S. Wright sounds like an interesting read and the blurb from the back cover seemed particularly engaging, but the writing style and poor world-building kept me from enjoying it.
The best way to describe the writing style is vague. The world-building is poor. The guild, the emperors, and the concept of the web are not clearly explained. The poor world-building compounded with the vague writing style makes for a story that isn't easy to engage with fully. There was no spark or chemistry between the characters making it feel clinical and abrupt. The worst part of the whole book was the ending. The ending was just awful. This book has received a great many positive reviews but I just can not agree with them.
Profile Image for Julie.
700 reviews9 followers
April 30, 2021
This book was really enjoyable - hard to believe it was written in 1988 since it has a very modern feel to it. A really interesting space opera type book about a technology that lets people feel connections between nodes, called the web, all written before the "world wide web" actually existed. I did feel like the ending was a little bit abrupt, maybe leaving room for a sequel that didn't happen.
Profile Image for Nadine.
1,157 reviews222 followers
October 17, 2017
A Matter of Oaths captured my attention for two reasons. One, it was described as a diverse space opera. The story features a gay person of colour and an older woman as Commander. And two, Becky Chambers wrote the introduction.

A Matter of Oaths has a lot going for it, but the writing style and poor world building kept me from fully engaging in the story.
The best way to describe the writing style is vague. It feels as if there's a glass barrier between the story and the reader. This barrier lets the reader know they’re reading a story, so it impedes readers from fully immersing themselves in the world Wright has created.
The world building is poor. The guild, the emperors, and the concept of the web are not clearly explained. The poor world building compounded with the vague writing style makes for a story that isn't easy to engage with fully.

The main character, Rafe, as I mentioned previously is gay and has a romantic relationship throughout the novel. It was refreshing to read a story with a non-heterosexual relationship as the main romantic relationship. Unfortunately, there was no spark or chemistry between the characters making it felt clinical and abrupt.

Overall, I was expecting something along the lines of Becky Chambers' work, but was disappointed to say the least. If you enjoyed The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet I would hesitantly recommend A Matter of Oaths only because it has a similar tone, but I would be cautious.

***I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Lark.
482 reviews15 followers
July 1, 2015
I really can't remember why I chose to pick this up. I think I was in a hankering for some space opera. And the blurb of this book seemed particularly engaging. A mysterious character with a hidden past, space ships, a sharp female Commander, an interesting system to connect to the "web" in space.

Unfortunately, this gets 1.5 stars from me despite the very interesting start. Oh, let me tell you - the start was great. It opens with a decidedly clever character, Commander Rallya, with her barbed tongue and casually flippant tone. She and her ship Bhattya need a qualified First, and there simply are not enough to spare. So enter in Rafe, our mysterious character with an even more mysterious background. He's brilliant in the beginning. Doesn't back down to the intimidating Rallya, holds his own, and he just reeks of confidence (or arrogance, however you want to spin it). And then we enter into space where they have this system of entering into the "web". Delightful, just delightful. Space opera, just the way a Firefly fan can dream of.

And then it all falls apart. I was just completely frustrated by all of the characters. The once clever Commander Rallya became nothing but an old crotchety woman. I kept waiting for her to do something crazy and daring and utterly impious. But all she did was spoon feed the reader through the Rafe mystery. She was more than a little useless. She learned nothing on her own initiative, her bravado was all talk, her barbed tongue always missing its mark.

And I really didn't like Rafe. His confidence so quickly turned sour and fell completely into the terminology of arrogance. I hate it when characters are that cocky and not useful. I wanted someone to shut him the hell up and give him a good smacking. (spoilers: no one does). He has not one shred of likability and not one flaw - unless you count amnesia a flaw. Ugh.

And then, even worse, the plot was just mind-numbingly boring. 90% of it was figuring out the mystery behind Rafe's mind wipe. WHICH WASN'T EVEN A BIG DEAL. Oh sorry, maybe just 75%. The rest is sex and romance, whoop-de-doo. The sex isn't even that sexy and the romance has no chemistry. Plot points are sprung out of thin air, characters are introduced only in the late second half of the book, random connections are made. It's all quite horrible.

And then the worst part of the whole book. The ending. The ending was just atrocious. Hardly any build up for the "big fight" and what an utter loser an Emperor turned out to be. It just doesn't make sense that someone that old could be trapped so easily. Ugh so annoying.

The only thing I liked was the atmosphere of the book. I've always had a penchant for space opera and almost-Firefly-esque. But holy fuck, what an annoying book. No characters I liked. A plot that has too many holes and snooze buttons. Ugh. Just no.

1.5 stars rounded down. I am so sorry I even picked up this book.
Profile Image for Vicky.
264 reviews5 followers
December 11, 2017
An interesting book, this. First published in 1988, it’s gained a sort of cult status amongst fans as a book that champions the best of science fiction: LGBT relationships, excitement, a fair dollop of invention and innovation, and a gripping lot. And space.
It doesn’t pull its punches, though, dropping you straight into the story without any explanation, leaving you to struggle and pick up the pieces as you go along- especially when it comes to getting to grips with the concepts and slang at hand. The story is set in the Twin Empires, ruled by two immortal beings, and populated by hundreds of planets- and the Guild, who control space travel everywhere. In one of these Empires, Rallya, captain of the patrol ship Bhattya, hires Rafe, a mind-wiped Oath breaker as their new First Officer. But Rafe’s past will quickly come back to haunt them all, as the ship and crew become entangled in a web of deception, empires and murder.
So, apart from the initial confusion in the story, I loved the inventiveness on display- from the complex telepathic ‘webs’, through which the crews control their ships, to the complex politics that characterise the relationships between the Empire and the Guilds. The book never lets up for a moment, and it probably merits a re-reading, because I was definitely lost in the complex tangle of plot points and unfamiliar lingo more than once.
The characters are intriguing, too: Rallya is likeable, stubborn and with a character arc over the course of the novel that you can really understand. And while Rafe remains a mystery for most of the book, he’s skillfully described and we get a clear sense of his character within the first few lines or so. The relationship that Rafe strikes up with Joshim, his webmaster, is also lovely: it’s always great to see LGBT representation at the forefront of a novel, and whilst theirs is the only romance in the novel, it’s also really sweet. Wright’s universe is one where gender doesn’t matter, which makes for a refreshing change.
The only place the novel falls down, I’d say, is with the plot. Though it’s interesting, it very quickly gets complicated, and by the end I was struggling to understand what was going on, whose motivations were driving which kidnapping, and what Rafe had to do with the two Empires. Last minute characters are introduced and revelations are made, that sometimes feel thrown in for the sake of it, and doesn’t exactly leave you engaged with the action, or the characters.
Overall, though, this was an enjoyable space romp that was served up a refreshing dollop of Star Wars-esque inventiveness. I’d recommend reading it twice, though.
Profile Image for imyril.
436 reviews60 followers
December 19, 2017
In theory I’ve read this before; in practice I only remembered one detail so I came to it fairly fresh... and I enjoyed every minute. Well-paced cyberpunk space opera driven by characters and emotions. I enjoy grouchy old Commander Rallya enormously (it took me most of the book to realise she reminds me of Avasarala, only without the swearing) and warm-hearted, conscientious cinnamon rolls Joshim and Rafe.

I’d really love to see a sequel. But really really.

Full review

I have both a free review copy from the publisher and a fully paid up previous edition.
Profile Image for Dearbhla.
639 reviews13 followers
February 27, 2016
The patrolship Bhattya is looking for a new member of staff, and Rafe appears to be the man for the job. But then rumour reaches them that he has been mind-wiped for Oath-breaking. A terrible crime, because the Oaths between the Emperors and the Guild are all that holds some measure of peace and stability in place.

But Commander Rallya is persuaded to take him on after he demonstrates his extraordinary skill at “webbing”, which is a sort of virtual reality way of running a spaceship. And once he is crew she is determined to keep him as such, despite a myriad of enemies that seem to appear.

I picked this one up because I had literally just finished reading a book when Sandstone tweeted out some SFF recommendations on twitter. The first one being for this book and as I was on the ‘puter at the time I figured I’d give it a try.

It is a great fun read, fast paced and with some great characters. It also a gay couple, and a racially diverse team of characters. All of whom are characters, not just box-ticking in an attempt to be politically correct. And this from a book first published in the ’80s! Something we are still looking for in many many books published today.

So yes, I really enjoyed it, however it does have its flaws. I found it a bit confusing at start, with the Oaths and the Emperors and the Guild, as Wright doesn’t do any info-dumps you have to figure everything out as you read. I think I got it all straight in the end, although I’d still like to know why the Emperors are emperors, is it just that they are immortal? And why are they immortal?

But the flaws aren’t enough to prevent me from also recommending this book to anyone who likes more personal stories in their space opera.
Profile Image for Abi Walton.
556 reviews32 followers
December 19, 2018
What an incredible read! I was recommended this book by my local bookstore and knew it was right for me when she compared it to Yoon Ha Lee. It was very similar in many of the best ways.
A Space opera that is exciting and engaging and the world building is given to you slightly so that it takes a while for you to understand everything which kept me intrigued.
It is the characters that I loved the most about this novel. Our main MC's are two men in a relationship and the head of the ship a woman of colour hitting retirement age who is a badass and feisty. Yes Please!
I loved Rafe and Joshim and their relationship to one another but I really felt like we had only scratched the surface of this world and the three main characters who are now in the position to take on the world. Will there be more I wonder as the book has been re-published last year maybe there is hope for book 2?
43 reviews
September 8, 2014
I thought this book was wonderful: well-written, interesting and suspenseful. The only reason I did not give it a five is because the world-building isn't done well enough at the beginning that it isn't ridiculously confusing exactly what is going on and what being an "oath breaker" means. And why the emperors are immortal.
Profile Image for Rae.
105 reviews5 followers
February 21, 2019
I loved the characters of this novel (especially the irascible Rallya!), the queer romance, the plotting and the scifi.

Rafe, the amnesiac quasi-ingenu with a mysterious past, could have become a stereotype in another writer’s hands, but Wright makes him very human. The other main characters—the ship Bhattya’s officers (or Three), Rallya, Vidar and Joshim—have a rapport that shows clearly the decades they’ve worked together.

In terms of tech, the webbers’ immersion into the web, with their artificially-extended nervous systems and physical identification with their ships, represents a vision of VR and networking that seems peculiarly 80s, which is by no means to say old-fashioned: I miss the consideration of embodied consciousness in modern depictions of this kind of technology. I wish that the non-human aliens had made more of an appearance in the plot, but that’s a very minor complaint. Conversely, the history of the two empires and their immortal Emperors was shown with just the right amount of detail, leaving plenty of room for the imagination to work while leaving no doubt about the stakes involved.

A Matter of Oaths is a must-read for fans of the new wave of queer scifi, as Arden (who recommended this book to me) described it. It’s a true shame that it was out of print for so long, but this is a fine moment for its reemergence!
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