Inda by Sherwood Smith

Inda is the omniscient-POV epic story of the eponymous character, Indevan-Dal “Inda” Algara-Vayir. As the second son of a Marlovan prince, he is sent to the prestigious military academy in order to hone his skills and prepare for his role as his elder brother’s second-in-command, but is soon caught in a treacherous web of political power plays.

I can’t really say I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed this book, because I very much expected to love it. Whenever this series was mentioned, I knew it was a perfect fit for my tastes. I was looking forward to carving a space in my chaotic TBR and finally getting to it.

In this review, I’d like to focus on the two aspects that really made Inda stand out, in my opinion: the worldbuilding and the characters.

Sherwood Smith has been imagining this universe since she was eight, and it shows. In this war-minded society, everything takes a martial significance: from the games the children of nobility play to the nature of the relationship between brothers. War is a constant presence in a country under several geopolitical threats, and it has an impact on the Marlovans’ culture. Eldest noble sons “train” their younger brothers from a very young age, because they’re the ones that will defend the family castles when the heirs inherit and have to go fight for king and country. This training is often in the form of plain bullying; add to that the systematic glorification of war and you get an environment that can easily turn toxic.

The magic is another interesting part of the story’s worldbuilding. Once a powerful tool, it is now weaker, mainly mastered by other countries who jealously guard its secrets and aren’t very keen to share all of them with the war-hungry Marlovans. Magic in this society is therefore used for mundane, everyday life purposes, and Smith very ingeniously wove it into her worldbuilding to make it more believable and coherent. Questions like “Where does all the manure go in this horse-mad country?” are answered by magic, for example. It’s an important aspect that will probably be more developed in the sequels; but even in its less potent form, magic has participated in the shaping of Marlovan society, especially due to the part it plays in procreation and birth control.

Which brings me to the subject of sexuality in Inda’s world. Sex is viewed as harmless fun. When one is of age, woman or man, they can visit the pleasure houses without any form of taboo attached to the act. Homosexuality and bisexuality aren’t just “accepted”, they aren’t viewed as something out of the ordinary in the first place. Consent is the key; sexual violence is non-existent.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about women’s roles in this society. Much like second sons, noblewomen are expected to defend their castles, and girls are therefore part of the children’s games that are in fact military drills and training against potential raids. They also have their own secret martial art and learn at a very early age to defend themselves. Women of the aristocracy have developed a web of loyalties between themselves, and they often work together to achieve their goals. Outside of nobility, we see women taking up diverse roles and thriving in them.

To sum up my part about worldbuilding, Sherwood Smith has clearly put a lot of thought in the creation of this universe, and the “little” touches (sanitation, birth control,…) make for a rich and fascinating world.

Now, the characters.

A tangent, and confession, first. I have the focusing capabilities of a high-on-catnip cat attending a laser show. That’s why I usually shy away from epic fantasy: the names, the places, the made-up words…It’s very easy to lose track and get overwhelmed. And I must say, Sherwood Smith does not make things any easier — on the contrary. Keeping up with the names, the titles, the nicknames of the numerous characters was a bit of a challenge. “And who is that?” was honestly my second most recurrent thought while reading (but the first was “Oooh I love this book!”). That being said, the feeling of confusion didn’t last very long (or I grew accustomed to it at some point, it’s hard to say) and the story was worth the trouble.

Inda is probably one of my favourite characters ever. It’s always a pleasure to follow a character in a coming-of-age story. I think the last time I felt this type of connection was with Fitz from the Farseer trilogy (Robin Hobb), with the notable exception that I never screamed “What are you doing you absolute moron?” at Inda, not even once. The young boy, who is ten at the beginning of the book and sixteen when it ends, has a keen strategic mind and a natural talent for leadership, without any trace of arrogance. I want to commend Sherwood Smith for her character creation and development skills: while Inda is not naturally good at everything, he knows to draw from his resources and is quick enough on his feet to extrapolate from previous knowledge and apply it to unfamiliar situations.

The “supporting” cast of characters doesn’t quite feel secondary due to the omniscient point of view. On the one hand, it can get tiring to have access to the inner thoughts of every character, but on the other, one gets a more nuanced view of the situation at hand. The antagonists often feel redeemable because their motives, while not always noble, are understandable on some level.

Particular attention is paid to the relationships between Inda and the people orbiting around him, with one constant: the young boy is seen as a force to be reckoned with. Whether this translates to a feeling of awe and loyalty, of envy and resentment, or of danger and threat, it’s the one thing antagonists and supporting characters can agree on.

A quick word about the plot and the pacing: I was being vague on purpose when presenting the book. Suffice to say that this first volume focuses mainly on Inda’s training at the military academy, the friendships he makes and the enmities he attracts. There are quite a few things happening, but the pacing of the book still fits the slower coming-of-age story structure.

There is a shift in tone and setting in the second part of the book, which clearly sets the stage for the sequel, The Fox. Internal strifes and external threats — mostly presented in Inda at their budding stage — will likely be explored in more detail in the sequels.

The series is comprised of four books in total, and I’m very excited to read more. If you like coming-of-age stories, good and strong worldbuilding, and endearing characters, I’d recommend you give Inda a try.

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