Juliet E. McKenna – The Swordsman’s Oath

When Ryshad, a sworn man, is instructed to assist a wizard in his fight against the strange magic of the Elietimm, it seems the perfect opportunity to seek revenge for the death of his friend. And the chance to renew his acquaintance with Livak – gambler, thief and former lover.

But Ryshad will have to overcome much more than his personal grief, for the Elietimm’s threat to the Empire is increasing at an alarming rate. He will journey to far-off lands and encounter treachery and foul sorcery. He will witness incredible wonders and terrifying visions. He will fight to the death to stay true to his oath. And for much of the time his sword will be his only friend – in more ways than he can possibly imagine.

Having read and loved McKenna’s first book, The Thief’s Gambit, last November, I really wanted to get back to the Tales of Einarinn and to find out what happens next. So during my Christmas book spree I made sure to get my hands on The Swordsman’s Oath. I loved returning to the world of Einarinn and Livak, Ryshad, Shiv and the rest.

McKenna makes an interesting switch in the active character viewpoints. Where Livak was the main active viewpoint in the first book, in this book we switch to Ryshad. His is the first person viewpoint, with the added third person viewpoints of Temar and Planir. Temar’s story was and the way it ties into the plot was very interesting and illuminated a lot about Tormalin history. However, is did take me a bit to realise they were set in the past, which caused a bit of confusion in the beginning, but once I realised the time line shift, I kept looking forward to returning to this part of the narrative. Getting used to being inside Ryshad’s head instead of Livak was remarkably easy and probably facilitated by the fact that Ryshad is a very likeable character, with a good sense of humour. I liked that we got to see the emotional consequences of events in the first book, as Ryshad deals with his grief. There was a good mix of the return of familiar characters, such as Shiv and some of the other wizards and additions of new ones, such as Halice, Temar, Laio and the old wizard Viltred. At the same time, as we’ve already seen in The Thief’s Gambit, McKenna isn’t afraid to lose characters, some in rather permanent ways, ensuring that the reader has to keep on her toes and can never be sure about a character’s continued survival.

As with The Thief’s Gambit, we get world building not just through the narrative but by letters, reports and similar pieces of texts interspersed throughout the book. These give us a historical perspective on what’s going on in the ‘contemporary’ story. I love this way of adding depth to a world and a society and I really enjoyed them. It also makes me wonder about the background information McKenna must have written out before starting her story and how this changed or evolved as she expanded the series with new sequences—she’s currently up to fifteen books spread over four sequences. The part of the book where Ryshad visits the Aldabreshin isles was my favourite part. I loved the society McKenna created for the Aldabreshin and the complete alienation Ryshad feels living there. It’s made me look forward to the second trilogy set in the world of Einarinn, The Aldabreshi Compass, where we’ll find out far more about this island culture. In addition to the Aldabreshi isles, we also get to (re)discover an entire new continent with our protagonist, the one where centuries before Temar and his companions founded the Kel Ar’Ayen settlement. The parts set in the colony were adventurous and action-filled and I really liked both the scenes set in the past and in the now.

One aspect of this book needs to be mentioned specifically: McKenna’s female characters. With a lot of attention and debate on the lack of strong female characters and the treatment of female characters in current genre fiction going on, McKenna’s females shine forth as beacons of independence and strength. Even in the Aldabreshi isles, where Warlords have several wives, these wives wield power of their own and have goals and ideals independent of their husband. And they’re not ‘modern’ examples, The Thief’s Gambit and The Swordsman’s Oath are over a decade old. So that leaves the question, did female characters degrade in the past decade or are there more examples that are simply overlooked?

The Swordsman’s Oath was a great sequel, no middle book syndrome here, and is a good tale on its own. I really enjoyed it and I’m so glad I discovered Juliet E. McKenna’s books. I can’t wait to get my hands on the next part of these Tales, as I want to find out how the recolonization will go and how Temar will deal with his new situation. And of course what choices Ryshad will make once he reaches Zyoutessela and how the struggle against the Elietimm will pan out. Ms McKenna’s latest, The Darkening Skies, book two in The Hadrumal Crisis is out next week from Solaris, and I have a lot of catching up to do before I can start that. My next McKenna read will be The Gambler’s Fortune, just as soon as I can get my hands on the book!