As boys, Theocles and Hali made vows of love and marriage to one another, but Theocles was swept away from his home by a sea of violence and loss when his village was raided. Forced into a refugee camp and having watched his family die one by one, he is soon vulnerable and alone and stealing to survive. Theocles is “saved” by Orkos, a man with a charming persona that masks the war-mongering sadist with a thirst for violence that he is. He molds Theocles into a mercenary, but despite Orkos’ best efforts, he can’t grind down all of Theocles’ principles, even as he grinds down his spirit. Having lost his faith in the gods and belief in a life without pain, Theocles’ memories of Hali have been locked away, and Theocles knows he will either die in battle, by other mercenaries’ treachery, or (unacknowledged, but present in the back of his mind), under Orkos’ brutal rage.
Hali is a minor god of the ocean and a seer who has spent 15 years experiencing Theocles’ fire and blood soaked nightmares and using the glimpses he gets of Theocles’ life to find him. He is ecstatic when he does, and determined to remind Theocles of the inner goodness that he can’t see anymore. Hali has seen how Orkos held out a helping hand to a child, then manipulated, isolated, and tried to subsume him; and how Orkos made Theocles feel worthless and beholden to him as his benevolent savior. Theocles was conditioned to accept Orkos’ domination, but could never fall into mindless bloodlust and heartlessness—hidden empathy and a desire to stop killing are the embers that Hali sparks into remembrance. Hali knows he has his work cut out for him, but believes strongly in the strength of their bond forged in childhood and Theocles’ desire for peace.
Theocles is swept into the warm, compassionate, and explosive heat of Hali’s embrace, even has he struggles to figure out the sense of familiarity. When he remembers, he knows he can’t keep Hali; he is too damaged and ugly and Orkos will destroy Hali if he can. However, Hali refuses to give up, and Theocles begins to trust that he isn’t as unredeemable as he thought. Yet, Hali’s love and forgiveness may not be enough to give Theocles the bravery to free himself from Orkos’ hold, nor to begin to forgive himself his trespasses.
The Ocean God’s Oath is the latest in the Of Gods and Men series and is a novella about grief, abuse, redemption, and love in its many forms. The story is told in third-person limited from Theocles’ POV, and is definitely about Theocles’ journey. He is the one who’s life was burned to the ground, the one who has nightmares about what’s been done to him and what he’s done to others, and the one in need of redemption and solace. Hali is there to give him that—to sooth the fires of his soul with endless compassion, understanding, and forgiveness; thus, he’s a pretty one-dimensional character much of the time. Yet, Lander does a great job of conveying Hali’s joy and font of unconditional love, making me want that for Theocles. Hali is also given a few moments of fire and temper that show that he is not a pushover or completely naïve as Theocles believes; he’s simply kindhearted and willing do anything to bring Theocles back from the brink and free him from Orkos’ poison.
As a novella, this story has to do a lot in a short amount of time—establish Theocles’ despair and mental state, showcase Orkos’sabusive and vicious behavior, and give Hali enough time to reunite with and save Theocles. The story manages this, but it all happens pretty quickly and there is no time to breath, especially when it comes to the MCs reconnecting and Theocles pulling himself out of Orkos’ clutches. The first time they meet is all sex, but it’s enough to shake Theocles’ foundation of resignation and get him to remember. Their second meeting allows them to talk and help Theocles face the truth about Orkos (after sex of course). However, Theocles’ somewhat quick ability to unchain himself and hope again can be attributed to his hidden desperation to be free and Hali giving him reason to believe that it’s possible. Additionally, Lander makes their connection feel very real and profound for the characters, so it was easy for me to go with it. It’s a simple story with MCs who are more archetypes than characters, but like the myths they are based on, that is kind of the point; the story is more about what they represent than who they are. I found it a heartening and satisfying quick read that hit the spot for something that is about hope and love in the midst of chaos and despair.