A person’s word is all they have. Never has this been truer than in the world of The Oathbreaker’s Shadow. The nomadic group central to the story doesn’t just believe in keeping promises, they enforce it. Each promise made requires a knot to be tied; a magical binding with grave consequences if broken. Before a certain age breaking a promise results in a painful lesson. But lessons are for children and there comes a point where the consequences are much more dire. Breaking a promise is the very definition of taboo in this land, even if done inadvertently.
Raim is a young man training to be Yun, an elite warrior and likely bodyguard to his best friend in the world, heir to the throne Khareh. But on what should be his most proud day something terrible happens. A promise is broken without any knowledge of what it contained and suddenly Raim is the run. Forced into the desert he fights to figure out how he was cursed by an action he had no knowledge of and zero ideas of what he could possible do about it.
This is a story about unintended consequences; at least it wants to be. In actuality it is a cool premise that unfortunately begs to have holes poked through it. Because everything this society believes in will start tearing apart due to the actions of a few; and the frailty of this system is an indictment that the society shouldn’t have lasted with it for so long. Arbitrary age restrictions could be explained away on their own but they are only the start of me outthinking things.
Raim’s broken promise, a promise made when he was a baby, should have never been possible. This is the catalyst of the story but and therefore is completely intentional but still should be impossible by the rules as they are lain out. Once the consequences are made clear, especially the titular ‘Shadow,’ I was able to guess (correctly) the other major plot points coming down the pipe. The rise of a villain, the discovery of a new magic, I was not surprised by a major plot point past the first third of the book.
Despite having serious issues making any sort of logistical sense out of these details the author really manages to hide these flaws with a quick paced, entertaining plot and some engaging characters. Raim looks to be building toward a redemption arc but things do not turn out to be that simple. He is joined on his journey by Wadi, member of another nomadic group that wanders an even harsher land. At first their connection is confused but eventually it comes out that she too is bound by promises not necessarily her own. And McCulloch is not afraid to shock a reader; violence and death are no stranger in this world.
If I could pick a highlight it is in fact the ethical and moral implications of a promise based society. When right and wrong sit on a sliding scale I find myself intrigued. Karen Millar wrote a tale where the ‘moral path’ was often the opposite of what we would expect due to a divine mandate. The affect is the same here; any promise broken results in exile. This means a promise made under duress, or through lust, or under the influence potentially sets the moral course for a person’s life. Some very questionable promises come into play for some characters; up to and including a promise of death.
This is a smart, fun book that excels when it is clicking. As long as a reader is not prone to overthinking things I have no problem recommending it. And there is always a possibility, as this is the first of a duology, that many of my concerns will be answered in due time.
Copy for review received through NetGalley.