Review of Oathtaker: Writing Fantasy From the Outside




Like books in any genre, fantasy novels are often bound to the very conventions that once made them unique.  Forbidding quests, fantastic magic, terrible secrets, and unspeakable evils kept readers guessing as they race from one page to the next, their imaginations scarcely able to keep up.  Now, however, with so many books—and films based on those books—the surprise has lessened somewhat.  Indeed, we often know exactly what to expect, and many authors take a certain glee in re-writing exactly those works they once delighted in (Eragon, anyone?).  Unfortunately, fantasy literature is supposed to transport to forgotten realms, lands that exist in the mist between history and the imagination, fantastic yet faintly probable.  To do this, the world has to seem realistic, lived-in, yet unlike any other world we’ve encountered.  The characters, too, have to be like us, share our own emotions and ideals, while at the same time being not like us at all.  This is a tall order for a genre which, like most genres, seems to exist simply by writing-to-order, giving us yet another dragon story, or yet another mythical quest narrative.  Not surprisingly, even the most eager fantasy reader approaches the latest release (especially by an indie author) with considerable trepidation.  I approached Patricia Reding’s Oathtaker in this exact frame of mind: optimistic, yet skeptical that I would read anything I hadn’t read a dozen times before.  What could possibly make this work stand out in a field crowded with the great and the not-so-great? 

To my surprise, Oathtaker succeeds because the writer seems to come from the fantasy genre from the outside.  By this, I mean Reding does not seem like a fan-writer, immersed in the legend and lore of all the books and supplements that came before her.  Rather, she seems to be using the possibilities of fantasy as a metaphor for the deepest quest of all: a human being in search of herself.  The earliest works of “fantasy” used the raw stuff of fantasy—dragons, magic, warriors, quests—in a mythical sense, as motifs upon which to develop the grandest themes of humanity.  Oathtaker uses fantasy in just this audacious—yet, as I argue, quite traditional—manner.  The very idea of an “Oathtaker,” one selected to follow a rigorous moral and intellectual path, is one of the great themes of literature itself.  Like one of the King Arthur’s knights, the Oathtakers are remnants of a fabled golden age, and roam the world in service to Ehyeh, the Good One, and his Select.  From this mythic premise, Reding unfolds a world full of mystery, majesty, yet simple humanity.  Too many fantasy novels fall into the trap of trying to be epic in every sense of the word.  Yet we can only stare at the heavens so long before we begin dreaming of earth.  From the first chapter, Reding parts the mists and introduces us to a flesh and blood human being, her heroine, Mara, who anyone could immediately identify with, even if we couldn’t possibly embody her spiritual devotion.  As the novel progresses, small human touches abound: acts of love, sacrifice, cowardice, and humor.  Reding doesn’t hide behind the conventions of the genre to give us a struggle in some never-never land.  Indeed, because it seems so real, so recognizable, it smarts all the more when someone is hurt—or, in a few instances, when the scope of her novel turns unexpectedly dark. 

Another great virtue of this work is how much seems at stake for the Oathtakers, as they try to protect the prophecy of the Seven (I’m trying hard to be vague here, to avoid spoilers!).  In many fantasy novels, the success of the quest seems a foregone conclusion; enemies are met and mowed down, challenges are quickly dispatched, and cliched drama is conjured up as a kind of smokescreen before the traditional denoument.  In Oathtaker, I was often shocked by the danger the characters face, and the horror of certain situations—including one scene that involves the removal of an eye as gut-wrenching as a similar moment in King Lear.  This also goes back to the humanity of the book: the villains are real, and they have very human—and therefore, very desperate—reasons for hounding our heroes.  Lilith, the great villain of the work, is complex, fascinating, and seems to play with the mythological associations of that name.  Yet far from being a cardboard cut-out, her role in the book is truly frightening and effective (but you’ll have to read the work to find out why). 
Reding’s writing is vivid yet spare.  She does not glory in words for their own sake, but uses them efficiently to create a landscape, a moment of intimacy, or a desperate battle.  
Thankfully, she seems unaware of (or indifferent to) the linguistic cliches of so much fantasy writing, and chooses simple, evocative English to tell her story.  From the opening chapter, when Mara first confronts the gruts, you find passages that ring with drama and visceral excitement: “Repeatedly darting and withdrawing, teasing and taunting, the grut toyed with their captive. Its eyes wide in terror, it snorted, then screamed. Coming up on its back legs, it dropped down upon the beasts, but they continued their attack. They tore at the equine’s flesh, hideously delighting in their torture. In short order, a killing grasp brought the animal to its knees. It went still.”  Again, her prime concern is to tell a gripping human story, one where we feel the terror of accepting an Oathtaker’s vow.  The narrative moves swiftly, though with plenty of time for reflection.  At times, I feel that the flow is robbed of some of its momentum by a bit too much explanation, though again, this is a reasonable ‘sin’ for clarity’s sake.  She never wants to bury us in arcane lore or detail, instead choosing to be our guide in this fantastic realm.  The narrative most often appears as a teacher/translator in this work, helping us see the connections between this world and our own, lest we mistake this for a mere flight of fancy.

Perhaps it’s not too much to claim that Oathtaker teaches its story as much as tells it.  For this is a profoundly moral work, one that intends to model human behavior and relationships in an almost religious sense.  Wisely, Reding avoids any explicit mention of real religion, couching it in the more ambigious terms of the Oathtaker’s mission.  Yet the connection is unmistakable, and Reding makes sly hints to her true inspiration in names like Lilith, and even the Good One, Ehyeh, with its Old Testament connotations.  However, it would be too much to call this a work of Christian fiction.  Reding speaks of a spirituality much larger than any one faith or denomination, and her narrative never descends to preachy finger-waving.  Like the best literature, the clues are there if we see them; otherwise, they simply shimmer in the background like the moon and the stars, providing a backdrop to her enchanting tale.  Yet the narrative, if we listen closely, offers great lessons for the young, and I think Young Adult readers particularly will take a shine to this work.  Speaking of myself, I would have loved to follow the exploits of the Oathtakers as a teenager, and would have found solace and wisdom in their teachings.  Many works attempt to be wise and instruct us about human behavior, but Reding does this almost unconsciously, so it meshes with the tale and informs 
it.  It’s a rare quality in any work of literature, much less a work of fantasy and legend.

As I mentioned earlier, the strength of this work is its ability to look “from the outside in” to the fantasy genre.  Often the trend-setters in any field are those not to the manner born, so to speak, and this is certainly true of Oathtaker.  However, occasionally being an outsider tempts her into some anachronisms, which is almost avoidable in this genre at any rate.  To invest ourselves in any work of fiction, especially the fantastic, we need to accept Coleridge’s famous “suspension of disbelief.”  Anything that jars us out of this condition reminds us that we’re reading a story rather than an event, and this makes us unfairly aware of its flaws.  Reding does this chiefly with her names, which don’t seem entirely consistent for her fantasy realm.  She offers up some exotic sounding names such as the language of Oosian and Old Chiranian, and characters such as Zarek and Gadon; but the work is predominantly Anglo-centric, populated by Maggie, Wayne, Simon, Sherman, Cheryl, and most disturbingly, a Ted Baker.  Of course, this would be fine if it were more consistent, but the contrast of Ted Baker and Gadon breaks the spell, alerting us to the presence of a ‘wizard’ behind the curtain.  Using a wider range of names, more European, or simply more blends of the two worlds, might help disguise this more.  Other anachronisms creep into the story when characters use modern metaphors to explain their world, as when Mara talks about feeling the sounds of an “orchestra” within her.  Since the very word conjures up a body of orchestral musicians playing 18th-20th century music, we are again jarred out of the fantasy realm.  I understand why she does this, since it allows the reader into the minds of characters quite remote from him or her.  I might suggest she approach it as T.H. White does in his self-consciously anachronistic novel, The Once and Future King, where the narrator alone makes modern references to the reader, but explains this later by remarking, “It was not really Eton that he mentioned, for the College of Blessed Mary was not founded until 1440, but it was a place of the same sort...by mentioning [Eton] it is easier to give you the feel” (Ace edition, p.11). 

However, these are very minor quibbles, and merely explain how little of the narrative seams peep through.  Oathtaker is a fine work of fantasy, and a remarkably assured work of literature in its own right.  It’s a long read that goes quite fast, and being a first novel, I can only imagine how the second one will improve upon it—and be an even more astonishing literary debut.  

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