Inda is the first of four novels in the series of the same name by American author Sherwood Smith. It tells the story of the titular young noble, Inda, in a time of war and crisis in the world of Sartorias-Deles, a setting for a number of her other works. It establishes the background and history of the world for the chronologically later but earlier written works.
A rich and robust world
On her website, Smith reveals that she’s been writing in the world of Sartorias-Deles for over 40 years and has generated atlases, encyclopedias and notebooks numbering in the hundreds dedicated to this world, and it shows. The cultures and societies are thorough, well-developed, internally consistent, and presented in a way that makes sense. You can see how the cultures would have developed in the way that they did up to that point.
As a historian myself, I appreciate the visible effort that has gone into shaping the world of Sartorias-Deles. When you consider that Inda the series was written as prequels for books taking place in the comparatively far distant future, it becomes even more of an accomplishment. Smith has written books that both don’t contradict any historical details written into the older books that took place later, and that don’t cause contradictions after the fact. The foresight and planning that must have gone into creating the world is incredible.
The kids aren’t all right
While characterized by the author as being decidedly not a young adult novel, the majority of the main characters are young teenagers at the outside. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with an adult-focused novel about children and teens, the culture is at least a little discomfiting by today’s standards of child-rearing. The culture Inda grows up in is intensely martial. The children train from prepubescence for war, taking part in attack/defend games centered around the family keep. The eldest son goes to the capital to train in their officer school, and then in turn trains the second son. The women are as involved as the men and train to defend their castles and keeps.
Entirely aside from the fact that training six-year-olds to fight and kill is a little uncomfortable, throughout the course of the novel, the death toll at the hands of people who in our world wouldn’t be allowed to even enlist in the reserves mounts up fairly high. The martiality of the society doesn’t cross the line into abuse by modern standards, but it skirts a little close for comfort if you happen to be of delicate sensibilities. Smith again does an excellent job in setting up the culture in a way where this level of military preparedness makes sense, yet there’s a certain assumed cultural maturity from the kids that I’m not sure is entirely realistic.
The problem of language
It must always be a temptation for authors who create such robust worlds to consider the possibility of accompanying them with an original language, and Inda is no different. But you have to be careful how much you put in and how complicated it gets in order for your readers to pick it up easily, and Inda falls slightly short in that regard. The main culture seems to have two distinct languages of titles and names, depending on whether they are speaking in the context of war or peace, and naturally enough you need to learn both sets of terms fairly early on. As well, a large portion of the story takes place at a military academy where basically all the characters have an academy nickname separate from their family name.
That said, it still only takes a few chapters to start to get the hang of things, and another few more to feel like you’re successfully tracking everybody. However, just about the time I got to that point, the main character goes off to sea, where they have an entirely new and distinct slang to learn. It is a little frustrating, but it doesn’t detract too much from the story. If you have a hard time keeping up with fictional languages, though, it might be slow going. I have read the second book in the series, The Fox, and having made it through the first, had no further problems at all with the slang and language, as Smith didn’t introduce anything new beyond the first book. It is still all there in The Fox, so it’s a worthwhile investment to get the hang of it rather than try to muddle through.
Why should you read this book?
If you’re a fan of large and well-developed world building, this book will not disappoint in the slightest. Smith has been working on this world longer than the majority of her core reader demographic has been literate. If you enjoy a coming-of-age story and the trials and tribulations of growing up in a world where sweeping events threaten to overtake you, this is also an excellent choice.
Well-designed characters with distinct personalities and a great deal of growth as they age and experience, an interesting tale of war and politics, and a completely stunning world combine to make this an interesting read.