This is such a modern-feeling book for one that was originally published in 1988 (though more recently re-released in 2017).
It is a space opera, set in a future governed by two opposing immortal emperors. The key technology of this future is ‘webbing’: spaceships contain a web, which is an interface through which specially trained and biologically altered pilots – called ‘webbers’ – may interact, communicating with each other and with the ship’s systems in a way that is efficient and intimate and sometimes dangerous.
We start the story with Commander Rallya trying to find a new officer for her ship, the Bhattya. Her webmaster, Joshim, backs a strangely talented yet previously under-used webber called Rafe. After realising his talent (and despite herself respecting his humorous irreverence), Rallya agrees to take him on. Quickly, however, it becomes clear that Rafe has a troubling past. He has had an identity-wipe, implying that he did the unthinkable and broke his oath to one of the two emperors. Rafe and Joshim enter into a relationship, and with Joshim’s help Rafe begins to uncover elements of his previous identity. That’s all well and good, until it reveals his former enemies… and the plot rollercoasters from there.
Was it so wrong to accept as truth the thing you wanted to be true?A Matter of Oaths, Helen S. Wright, p126
The imagined technology of webbing has aged well (despite slight irony in the name), and is described in a detailed yet throw-away style that feels pleasingly realistic. The world in general is vast but communicated without exposition and with an offhanded down-to-earth-ness that I really enjoyed. There’s no one consistent narrative voice. Some chapters are snippets from histories of the time, or of intelligence briefings, or security logs, while some are told from the point of view of one of our central characters. It is a story told piecemeal… but in a way that gradually builds the reader’s understanding and the overall tension of the plot. I thought it was very effective.
I would say that the vastness of the world and the diverse narrative styles did mean there was a good amount I don’t think I got on the first read. Especially on reaching the end, where there are some great reveals, I felt like I wanted to turn back to the beginning and reread with my new improved knowledge of the world. I’ll do that at some point!
So the plot’s engaging, the world is great, but the thing that really kept me turning the pages was character. I fell in love with the central three. Rallya is an older woman with a bad hip, who is a brilliant spaceship commander and webber but will need to give over both at some point in the near future. She is self assured and wry, and I massively enjoyed seeing such a positive and rounded portrayal of an older woman (not nearly as common as it should be). I also loved Rafe’s engaging sharpness, and Joshim’s intelligent kindness, and the ease and understated passion of their relationship – which I found to be the heart of the novel.
I recommend this story for its well thought out world-building, engaging futuristic plot, its diversity that is simply there, and its absolutely loveable characters. Fans of Becky Chambers – you will love this. I just wish there was a sequel! 😭