A Matter of Oaths: cyberpunk space opera

Book cover: A Matter of Oaths - Helen S Wright (a silhouetted man overlaid with a web of light)Formidable Commander Rallya needs a new First Officer for Bhattya; talented young webber Rafe needs a new berth. But Rafe is an Oath-breaker and few crews will consider taking him on. Worse, he was identity-wiped: he has no idea who he was or why he broke faith. But there are those who do, and they aren’t finished with him – or with Bhattya if she takes him on

A Matter of Oaths gets a glorious new edition nearly 30 years after its original publication. I first read it a few years ago, and enjoyed it as a charming space opera stew of immortal warring Empires; cyberpunk instead of science; an amnesiac protagonist; a strong dose of ‘I’m getting too old for this shit’ from Rallya; and a dash of romance (happily not between Rafe and Rallya).

I leapt at the chance to revisit it, and found I’d forgotten practically everything (there’ve been a lot of books in the interim, okay?) so came to it almost entirely fresh. And I loved it.

This is space opera that cheerfully waves a hand at the background and gets right on with focusing on its characters and their relationships. Helen S Wright clearly knows what’s going on in her universe, but she rarely pauses to inflict much context: it’s enough to know that human space is split between two warring Emperors whose unending conflict is limited by their reliance on the independent Guild of Webbers – the only people who can fly spaceships.

Webbers are as idiosyncratic and arrogant as that sort of influence suggests; and Commander Rallya – refusing to accept she’s coming to the end of her career – is no exception, as irascible as she is competent. In fact, I eventually realised she reminds me of nobody so much as The Expanse‘s Chrisjen Avasarala (albeit with less swearing); she shamelessly mocks and prods her underlings, and ruthlessly manipulates those around her to get what she needs. She adores being a ship’s Commander and has no interest in retiring into Guild politics or bureaucracy – but when she’s persuaded to accept Rafe in spite of his troubled history, it’s equally clear that she won’t stomach an injustice.

Because what if he didn’t break his Oath?

…one thing that A Matter of Oaths doesn’t necessarily do is spell out its internal logic. It lays out just enough context to get you through, but if you’re not thinking on your feet, some of the implications can be a bit hazy until everybody gets outraged (or maybe I was more tired than I realised). If Rafe didn’t break his Oath, somebody else did (because otherwise the Guild should have been outraged at the identity-wipe of one of their own) – which suggests corruption in the Guild itself. Rafe’s identity is at the heart of a conspiracy that could upset the delicate balance of power that keeps the peace.

On the plus side, there are very few info dumps – everything emerges through the plot, which happily bounds along with few distractions. Perhaps ironically, the one thing I’d have cheerfully done without were the intermittent comms snippets (context or not) – while they raised tensions by confirming that there was a threat to Rafe from early on, knowing who was involved removed ambiguities that I think would have raised the stakes later on. However, it’s a minor quibble at most.

I found it engaging from start to finish, because I’m a sucker for a competent crew who know how hard they can lean on one another. I loved the casual relationships and assumed intimacy here (although another minor quibble: I’d have liked to have spent longer on Rafe and Joshim’s emerging relationship – the leap from first kiss to committed romance was a little jarring). I also liked the offhand way in which few characters were white or straight. This is a future without prejudices. Even Rafe’s ‘near-human’ ancestry – not that it’s clear what this entails – isn’t treated as unusual.

If Rallya is an uncompromising joy (how often do we get to see difficult older women in fiction? Not often enough), Rafe and Joshim are cinnamon rolls – dedicated to their craft in the web, mindful of their duties, delighting in educating their juniors and committed to each other. And SPOILER ALERT AWOOGA ETC (mouse over to read) when we finally get to meet the Emperors in the final act, they are fascinating. Helen S Wright picks up on an aspect of immortality that has always bothered me: just how much you would fear death when you have so much to lose.

While A Matter of Oaths is self-contained in its primary plot, it leaves itself wide open for a sequel. It’s been a long time since it was first published, but I shall continue to nurture the hope that this rerelease is an indication that Helen S Wright may not yet be finished with the fascinating universe (and characters) she created…



I received a free copy of the new edition from the publisher in exchange for an honest review, but I bought a copy of the original edition a few years ago. And I’ll be buying a copy of this pretty new edition so I can finally have a physical copy on my shelf. Yes, I really do like it that much. In fact, I like it so much that it’s also my choice for this year’s blogiversary giveaway – you too can explore the Twin Empires and the Disputed Zone! 


The giveaway small print

  • The giveaway is open for entries until midnight PST on 26th November. The winner will be announced on Monday 27th
  • To enter, follow the blog and leave a comment on this post to get your name in the draw
  • Let me know how to get in touch if you win (e.g. email address, Twitter handle)
  • If you win, a residential mailing address must be provided (sorry, no PO Boxes)
  • The winner will have 72 hours to respond with the information needed to get their prize delivered. If no response is given, another winner will be selected.


With thanks to @sandstone78 for first putting A Matter of Oaths on my radar back in the day!