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Memories They Can’t Be Boughten

A Matter of Oaths

By Helen S. Wright 

18 Dec, 2017

Space Opera That Doesn't Suck


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Helen S. Wright’s 1988 A Matter of Oaths is a standalone (thus far) space opera.

Desperate for crew but short on qualified candidates, Commander Rallya of the patrolship Bhattya grudgingly hires Rafe. His service record is glowing, his professional qualifications are exemplary, but … Rafe has been mind-wiped, for reasons about which Rallya can only speculate.

Not having a choice really speeds up the decision making process. At least Commander Rallya can be sure that whatever Rafe’s past, identity erasure has made it completely irrelevant to his present. 


Ageless Emperor Julur rules the Old Empire. Fellow immortal Ayvar rules the New Empire. The Guild of Webbers provides starship crews to both; the Guild’s monopoly on cybernetically enhanced webbers and their even-handed service to both empires makes them effectively a third power. So, far, this set up has proved quite stable. Even the long-running (and seemingly pointless, from the perspective of ordinary humans) war over the Disputed Zone has not disrupted the arrangement. 

It doesn’t take long for Rafe to settle in on Bhattya. Nor does it take long for Bhattya to pick up a job escorting convoys from Outsider raiders. Rallya does not particularly trust her new recruit, but she cannot question his diligence or skills. 

There’s just one thing that nags at her. Rafe’s service record prior to joining Bhattya featured a daring act of heroism, foiling an attack on a ship he was crewing. Perhaps it was just bad luck that the ship encountered an EMP mine at the worst possible moment. Yet bad luck seems to dog Rafe. Rallya is eventually forced to conclude that Rafe is being targeted, by persons and for reasons unknown. 

Thanks to the mindwipe, there’s no point asking Rafe who is stalking him. All Rallya can do is keep her eyes open and gather evidence. That evidence points in an unexpected direction: whoever is persecuting Rafe is very well connected. In fact, as well connected as it possible to be in an imperial system. 

It seems as if the stability of the three-power system might itself be imperilled.


Being the sets and props’ sort of person I am, I was a bit distracted by wondering why. Why is it that the two emperors and a small handful of people are ageless1? Why are they in power? The novel’s characters seemed to think it obvious that of course the powers-that-be, and no one else, would be the small group of immortals. As if there were a logical connection. Didn’t seem obvious to me. 

Although 1988 is now uncomfortably far in the past, A Matter of Oaths is modern enough in various details2 that one could imagine some readers working themselves into a Wright rage over it. While the majority of characters are men, Commander Rallya is an older woman whose decisions have empire-shaking consequences. Rafe is brown skinned (a detail the current cover actually acknowledges) and the several same-sex relationships are accepted as routine. Well, some of those relationships might be noteworthy, but not because they are same-sex3.

This novel seems like the sort of book that should have had avid fans sharing dog-eared copies for decades. I know A Matter of Oaths has been mentioned on Tor.com, but otherwise it does not seem to be as well known as I would have expected. Baffled, I looked at the ISFDB entry to see if it offered any clues.

It was published by Questar. Published by Questar with a cover like this:

Not that the original Methuen cover art is much better 

but at least cover artist John Higgins incorporated into the Methuen cover details drawn from the book, where as Questar’s Martin Andrews cover is stonkingly generic. Perhaps the scruffy white man on the Questar cover is pondering matters of state. Maybe he’s trying to work out why the woman on the cover is staring daggers at him. Maybe he’s just trying to work out what he wants for lunch.

Being published by Questar has been the kiss of death for several books I like. I would not be surprised to learn that a good chunk of the audience who would have loved this book simply never saw it. Or saw the covers and recoiled.

Fortunately, we live in a golden age of reprints. Bloomsbury Caravel has brought out the first new edition of A Matter of Oaths in twenty-seven years, with a glowing introduction by Becky Chambers. If you’re looking for a diverse, LGBT-friendly space opera, you will want to consider this.

A Matter of Oaths is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: Not, and this is a plot point, unkillable. Disease and age won’t kill either emperor, but bad luck, assassins, and a particularly large Maine Coon cat falling asleep on an emperor’s face just might. Both emperors have taken note of this fact, but their reactions have been rather different.

2: One way in which this novel shows its age is in the matter of workplace romances. Such romances are common in A Matter of Oaths and a very very bad idea in the real world. In the book, no one thinks badly of a senior officer who treats subordinates like a sexual smorgasbord. In the real world, the benefits of such an arrangement (to the boss) are outweighed by the costs to the workers, the company, and the society at large. 

3: Said relationships are sometimes of note because of who the lover is, not what plumbing they have.