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The Oathbreaker's Shadow - Amy McCulloch I received this book as part of a Goodreads First Reads giveaway, and am providing an honest review in exchange. :)

Raim has had an oath around his wrist since before he can remember. He doesn't know what the promise was, or who he swore it to, but when he swears to become his best friend's protector, the oath is broken. Raim becomes a traitor, and exile, all for a promise he can't remember making. His only chance for salvation is to learn the truth, but the truth is darker and more tangled than he could have ever imagined.

When I saw this on a Goodreads First Reads giveaway, I had to enter. I was in love with the concept. Making knots to swear promises, with terrible consequences if that promise is broken? The possibilities seemed endless, and it seemed like the type of book I would fall in love with.

Sadly, my expectations were set a little too high.

This is not a terrible book - not by any stretch of the imagination - but it did have its problems. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I did originally go into this book thinking it was aimed at a much older audience than it actually is, which is probably part of the reason it didn't meet my expectations. I thought it was a young adult fantasy - specifically, the older end of the young adult market - but the back of the book informs me that it's for readers aged 11+.

Ah, so, not as dark and nuanced as I first had hoped for, then.

And it would also explain the villain of the novel, who rambled on about his Evil Plans (AKA conquest with a spirit army and the destruction of anyone who would stand in his way) whilst the hero meekly listens and waits for the opportune moment to escape. Very James Bond.

Not to mention the fact of the identity of the villain itself, which stretched the limits of what I could believe. Sure, Khareh was a bit of an arrogant twat, but he was not evil. What could have been a heart-rending and soul-destroying revelation, therefore, was marred by my brain going 'what, really?'.

The other problem I had with this book was the world-building. It was quite shaky to start with, to be honest. The culture didn't feel nomadic to me, and although I was being told lots of things about their history and about their 'yurts' and the steppe, etc etc, it didn't quite seem real. Like, why would the royal family travel mainly with one tribe just because Raim is best friends with the prince? Surely that's impractical and unrealistic? I'd wonder whether the weak world-building is because the book is aimed at a younger audience, but that would be unfair to the genre. This issue did get better as it went along, particularly when the culture of the desert was explored, so perhaps McCulloch just needed some time to get into her stride. This is her debut novel after all.

And, hey, at least McCulloch strayed away from Generic Medieval Fantasy Land!

Despite the shaky start, the world-building did have a lot of interesting ideas, and I'm keen to know more about the cultures in subsequent books. Especially about promise knots and haunts, because I still want to know a lot more.

I also enjoyed the fact that it was obvious the author had researched into desert survival and the effects of extreme heat on the body. That's the sort of thing that needs to be got right, and Amy McCulloch manages it. :)

I really enjoyed the character building, however, especially Raim. He had prejudices, and he tried to face up to them even though he was repulsed. He admitted he was repulsed, and tried to change his prejudices, but struggled a lot with doing so. I think that this is quite a brave move from an author, to make her main character that way. Having a character have prejudices and admit to them, and have them not be able to suddenly overcome them in a matter of days really shows commitment. Not many novels, especially for a younger audience, seem to tackle this. The hero can normally do no wrong or, if he does, he finds it easy to change his prejudices and no longer be repulsed. This does not happen. It is never easy to fight something ingrained in you like that. So, bravo Amy McCulloch for tackling this issue, and for doing it so well.

I also liked the character of Draikh, though he's still very mysterious to us. I hope that we learn much more about him in subsequent books.

Wadi too was a good character, as she was a strong female character who could kick some serious butt!

But no, I still don't like the villain. :/

All in all, despite the shaky world-building and the choice of bad guy, this book is a reasonable debut to a promising-looking series. There are a lot of questions still left unanswered, so I look forward to subsequent books (And hopefully Khareh will be more believable as a bad guy in future books, too)! If you love fantasy and are intrigued by the premise, give it a shot. You might just enjoy it. :)

08/07/2013 - I've just won this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway! I'm looking forward to receiving and reading this. :)