Saturday, August 27, 2022

"Oath Broken" by Jarryd Smith--Fiction Review

This evening Obscurists, we’re diving into an urban fantasy novel with Jarryd Smith’s “Oath Broken.” It’s a fantasy story with a big central mystery and a lot going on in the outskirts. 

Jarryd Smith

What I love about this book:

“Oath Broken” has a distinct urban fantasy style that should appeal to anyone who likes books like “The Dresden Files.” Magic and fantastical creatures are just on the fringes of society, blending into everyday life. It’s a cool atmosphere, in my opinion. 

Smith does an excellent job at making the world of “Oath Broken” feel big, with many entities with their own agendas going about their business. I appreciate the sense that the world of this novel doesn’t seem to pivot on the main character or his problems, which I think is a subtle art a lot of storytellers get wrong. Kaleb is the protagonist of this story, but he isn’t the alpha and omega of this universe. He’s just another guy who lives in the world, a talented guy, sure, but one among many.

In other posts, I’ve mentioned this numerous times—I’m a sucker for a good action scene, and Smith doesn’t disappoint in this book. The various fantasy-style showdowns in this novel are all distinct in what’s going on. The ebb and flow of the battles that take place have their own character, so they never become repetitive or uninteresting.

Also, I appreciate Kaleb’s meticulous approach to what sorts of gear and equipment he brings into any situation—as a consummate wizard player in D&D, I value preparation over spontaneity any day.

What I don’t love about this book:

Everyone’s default communication style in this book is sarcastic disdain. Nobody seems to like each other or even can have a conversation without someone being utterly dismissive. It’s all—“that’s impossible,” “you’re a liar,” “you are useless,” and “why don’t you just leave?” 

That last one, I actually started to agree with thinking, “Kaleb, buddy, budgie, boopy, these people suck; why are you trying so hard?” At no point after Kaleb does something extraordinary or saves everyone for the 9th time that day in a heroic or self-sacrificial way does anyone ever say, “hey, thanks, Kaleb. Good Job. I guess I was incorrect in my assessment of you.” No, even right after Kaleb does something altruistic that directly refutes someone’s negative perception of him or his abilities, it’s still on the caliber of, “I hate you, Kaleb. I would say I hope you die in a fire, but I also think that might be too quick a death. Now, if you’ll excuse me, with zero self-awareness, I’m going to rush headlong into a dangerous situation—against your recommendations—that you will inevitably bail me out of later.” 

Other than that, my other dislikes are pretty trivial. There was some disconnect for me regarding what was going on with the prologue and epilogue characters and the main story. It was all ominous things are afoot and how that relates to anything is unclear and ambiguous.

Also, Smith could get stuck in explain mode for certain things: how they look, act, work, et cetera, et cetera. I get the explanations as world-building material, but I’m also disenchanted by world-building when it comes at the expense of the plot or its pacing.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

After a prologue with death and various deities associated with death, doing—well, death stuff—the story opens with Kaleb going to a wedding. The bride-to-be is less than thrilled about Kaleb’s choice of wardrobe and makes it clear. But Kaleb is at the wedding as his friend Sam’s plus one and so makes the best of it. He even hits it off with a beautiful redhead at the reception named Alex, and they have quite the evening together…

…that may have ended with Alex’s eyes turning red and attacking Kaleb as only a creature of the night can. But the details are fuzzy.

It would seem that the following day, Kaleb is fine, but the mysterious Alex is gone. Still, doubts creep into Kaleb’s thoughts, and it turns out he has some expertise regarding possible supernatural beings. When he leaves the group to return home, he is sure to call his boss, who is apparently a witch, to tell her that he thinks he’s just met a group of vampires. Why they can go out during the day is unclear to Kaleb.

Kaleb tries to catch up with his friend Sam but hasn’t managed to get in touch with him since the wedding. Then Kaleb has an odd encounter with a different witch that takes a turn for the more nightmarish. She’s clearly a necromancer who can also use dream magic.

Barely escaping the nightmare he was trapped in by the death witch, Kaleb realizes the other voice he was hearing while asleep was Alex. She was at his front door, trying to wake him up. Still suspecting what Alex really is, Kaleb greets Alex at the door but doesn’t explicitly invite her in, and she puts it together that he knows she’s a vampire. Alex isn’t the only one too; the whole wedding party, except for Sam and the groom, turns out to be one of these day-walking vampires. Alex knew Kaleb was in trouble because she had inadvertently created a bond between herself and him.

Eventually, Kaleb goes to Sam’s house but finds it empty, and clearly, Sam hasn’t been there for a few days. This starts to worry Kaleb, mainly because his vampire theory seems to fit the situation, and he suspects they have something to do with Sam’s disappearance. Leaving Sam’s house, Kaleb is again attacked by different undead and is only rescued by Alex and the other vampires, who were not involved in Sam’s disappearance but looking to find him too.

From here, Kaleb and the vampires start working together to find Sam after a rocky start to their working relationship because it’s revealed Kaleb was a hunter of supernatural things back in the day. Hunters and vampires don’t usually mix. Kaleb had given that life up and had taken an oath not to use his magic anymore, a magical oath put on him by the local witch coven. But it would seem while doing battle with the necromancer witch, Kaleb’s oath was broken because there was a stipulation that if he were attacked by a witch, he’d be free to use his abilities again.

Ultimately, it ends up a showdown between Kaleb and the vampires on one side against the necromancer, but the fight is on the necromancer’s territory. Sam is recovered—sort of—he’s been turned into a powerful undead as necromancers are known to do to people. Powerful enough that he survives after Kaleb destroys the necromancer. The toll of the battle is high, though, and not everyone makes it.


At its core, “Oath Broken” is a mystery story set against an urban fantasy backdrop. The story’s driving force is Kaleb’s need to solve what happened to his friend. It’s also a bit of a character study on Kaleb himself because he’s clearly the kind of person who does whatever it takes, risks whatever he needs to, for his friend’s sake. It isn’t just with Sam, either. Kaleb had to give up his life as a hunter and all his fantastical abilities because he saved another friend from goblins. It’s a repeated story beat with him.

I enjoyed the plot of this novel, and despite my earlier comments, I even enjoyed the world-building elements because they didn’t become too intrusive or grind the story’s pace down too much. There were a couple of over-explaining moments, but for the most part, Smith fleshed out the details of this universe to supplement the story and not the other way around.

As solid as I found the bones of this book to be, I can’t think of a single conversation between characters that didn’t have an annoyed undertone, which is unfortunate. The settings and situations that occur in this novel are varied and creative, but the dialogue is somehow always uniform. It would have been incredibly refreshing if at least one conversation happened that wasn’t antagonistic in nature because even the flirting between characters seemed to have that edge.

Parting thoughts:

I have experienced a lot of vampire fiction in my day—from “Dracula” and “Carmilla to “Interview with a Vampire” and “Salem’s Lot.” They’re a fictional archetype like zombies that I thought I would never tire of as a kid. But tire of them I have—my favorite modern-day vampire story is “NOS4A2,” which is such a different take on this fictional concept it might as well not be looped in with the rest of the vampire stories today. 

The main thing that wearies me about vampires in fiction is their over-saturation. There is almost no angle to approach them that hasn’t been explored before. Oh, but these vampires can walk around during the day—like “Blade.” Oh, but they also have magical powers and varied types—like “Vampire:  The Masquerade.” This isn’t in any way this book’s fault, and to be fair, this isn’t a book about vampires, but a book in which vampires just happen to be present. All books that involve vampires have this issue because so many stories involve vampires.

It’s hard to think of an original way to use vampires at this point, let alone make that new angle enjoyable. You can pull down almost any genre and hit a vampire story—vampire apocalypse, “The Strain”—vampire YA romance, “Twilight”—vampire comedy, “The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred the Vampire Accountant,”—vampire story that involves Dennis Miller for some tortured reason, “Bordello of Blood.” They are ubiquitous.

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