Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Book Review | The Oathbreaker's Shadow by Amy McCulloch

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Fifteen-year-old Raim lives in a world where you tie a knot for every promise that you make. Break that promise and you are scarred for life, and cast out into the desert.

Raim has worn a simple knot around his wrist for as long as he can remember. No one knows where it came from, and which promise of his it symbolises, but he barely thinks about it at all—not since becoming the most promising young fighter ever to train for the elite Yun guard. But on the most important day of his life, when he binds his life to his best friend (and future king) Khareh, the string bursts into flames and sears a dark mark into his skin.

Scarred now as an oath-breaker, Raim has two options: run, or be killed.


I'm going to let you in on a little secret: promises are made to be broken. In truth, trust exists to be tested.

We're often called upon to give our word, for what it's worth, but keeping it is never so simple. Of course it can be done, and indeed, we should endeavour to honour as many of the bonds we form as possible. But sometimes, circumstances arise; unavoidable, inescapable circumstances that require us to behave badly in service of the greater good. To do something we have sworn not to, or say what someone else would rather we wouldn't.

I'm sure I sound like someone with a guilty conscience, and perhaps I am. I'd argue that we all are, to a  greater or lesser extent. Thankfully, the consequences of betraying a vow in our world are in nothing compared to what we'd face if we came from Kharein, the capital city of Darhan.
"Kharein itself was shaped like a pentagon and surrounded by a long, low wall. The wall served more as a way to section off the inner city from the masses of yurts that surrounded it than as any means of defence, as Kharein needed little defending. The flat, isolated land that surrounded the city meant that any attacking army could be seen from miles away, and would be met well before it reached the city. On every point of the pentagon stood a tall watchtower, guards keeping a vigilant eye for suspicious plumes of dust. During Festival season, the yurts were scattered around the outside of the city walls, clustered together by clan like white petals around a flower. This was the only time Kharein truly looked alive. Without the visiting population it was simply a dried up bud—the centre of royal activity, perhaps, but not the home of people's hearts. The people of Darhan could not be settled. They moved constantly, shifting with the days of the year, the seasons, the animals. By the end of the month-long Festival even the merriest Darhan grew restless. They dispersed, seeds on the wind, and yet remained unified. It was the life of the Darhan, and had been for centuries." (pp.53-54)
Here, in the authentic desert dynasty Amy McCulloch has dreamed up for her debut, oaths are expressed in physical form. So-called "promise knots" are tied in thread or rope or gold, then worn by both parties. These don't mean a great deal until people reach their Honour Age—when they should be old enough to know better, basically—but beyond that point, forsaking one's faith represents the road to ruin:
"A true promise has serious consequences. Breaking a knotted promise meant excommunication to the desert to live in Lazar, with the community of exiled oathbreakers known as the Chauk. 
"There was no escaping this fate. If it was just a scar you could hide it [...] but it was the shadow that you could not escape. It was the shadow that others saw, judged and sentenced the oathbreaker to exile. It was the shadow that followed you all the way to Lazar and made sure you stayed there. Just the thought of it made Raim shudder." (pp.8-9)
At the outset of The Oathbreaker's Shadow, Raim is an adolescent on the cusp of adulthood, with characteristically grand plans for the future and friends in high places. Friends like Khareh, who is in line to lead Darhan one day as Khan—and on that day, Raim sees himself as Khareh's right hand man, safeguarding the future ruler from any potential threat. In their innocence, the boys simply agree that this will be, thus they tie a promise knot to stress their fidelity.

Fate, however, has other plans for the pair. Raim must become Yun before he can be sworn in as his best friend's Protector, and it will not be easy, even for such a natural talent as he. To make matters worse, Khareh has taken an unhealthy interest in an old man who says he can teach the would-be Khan magic:
"The old stories, passed down by the elders, told of a time when the strongest Khans were the ones with a sage at their right hand, performing magic that gave them the edge on the battlefield. But that was long before even the oldest elder had been born, and for as long as any memory could reach, ever trace of sage magic had disappeared, lost for ever—or so it had seemed." (p.32)
It takes a fair while for the titular oath to be broken, and again for the subsequent shadow to show itself, but I wouldn't describe this debut as slow going. On the contrary, McCulloch makes good use of her first novel's opening act, establishing character and developing setting like an old hand, all while aligning the pieces on the board just so. To wit, when the central premise of the text finally takes centre stage, it presence is very much felt.

The Oathbreaker's Shadow doesn't stop there. McCulloch whisks us around the desert lands of Darhan—to Lazar and back again—like a bona fide tour guide, at such a breakneck pace that if anything I'd have been grateful for a break. But there are sights to be seen, wonders of this world as well, and I'm pleased to have experienced them... though only a few have time to truly take flight.

Similarly, later reversals largely lack the impact of the breakdown of the relationship between Raim and Khareh. Draikh is pretty great, but Wadi—a forgiving Alashan our protagonist takes up with after his inevitable exile—is too transparent a character for her fortunes to mean much.

The Oathbreaker's Shadow is a bunch of fun otherwise. From the germ of an absolutely fascinating idea—our right to wrong; to do ill by others as well as well—Amy McCulloch shapes an undeniably entertaining debut that put me in mind of The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett. And there's every chance The Oathbreaker's Shadow will be just such a success. Sometimes the oldest stories are the ones which take hold of one's imagination most, and the plight of Raim set against the rich tapestry of Darhan is entirely alive in my mind's eye.

In short, bring on book two of this endearing duology. And the sooner the better, especially in light of the absence of an actual ending. The Oathbreaker's Shadow simply pauses at a point—an emerging trend (or am I just noticing it now?) that never fails to frustrate. By design, I dare say, because of course authors want us to want more.

And it's true: I do.


The Oathbreaker's Shadow
by Amy McCulloch

UK Publication: June 2013, Doubleday

Buy this book from
Amazon.co.uk / The Book Depository

Or get the Kindle edition

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