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Inda by Sherwood Smith

Published by DAW Books

Cover art by Matt Stawicki

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Inda is a Marlovan, one of the former barbarian nomads whose descendents now rule the land of Iasca Leror and have built an empire that covers most of the Halian subcontinent, the huge peninsula on the western end of the Sartorian continent. His people are of course the ancestors of the people of Marloven Hess in Senrid's time, almost a millennium later. But all that is far in the future, and magic is almost vanishingly rare in Inda's time. There is the Waste Spell, of course -- no one anywhere is denied that, for to do so would be to condemn them to squalor and disease. But such things as magic-reinforced bridges and magical healing are difficult to obtain, for the kingdom of Sartor in the fabled east controls access to magic and views the Marlovans with suspicion. When mages are sent to renew various spells, it is always in company of guards to ensure that they are not kidnapped and forced to reveal their secrets.

But such things are far from Inda's mind when he and his fellows in Castle Tenthen set about a mock-battle with the girls of the castle. It's a puppy-fight, but to the proud, warlike Marlovans it's also important training for when they'll be expected to defend their homeland with real steel. And this sort of play fighting is all the training Inda can expect to receive, for as the second son of the Adaluin (Prince) of Choraed Elgaer, he will not be attending the famed Academy in the royal city of Choraed-Hesea as his older brother Tanrid does. By Marlovan custom as ancient as law, the eldest son rides out to defend the nation at large as part of the fabled Marlovan cavalry, while the second son remains ever at home as a final line of defense against invaders.

But all that changes when a messenger arrives from the king, announcing that a new plan has been put into effect. Because of the dire necessity of impending war, custom will be set aside and the younger sons of the various noble families will be summoned to the Academy as well. So young Inda sets forth in the company of his father's retainers on a journey that had previously been unimaginable. On his way he passes through the lands of the Montre-Davan-Ans, exiled former kings of the Marlovans. Its a place where bitter hatreds are nursed with loving care, where the seeds of trouble have been planted that will continue to bear fruit for centuries to come.

Readers who have also read A Stranger to Command will enjoy comparing and contrasting the Academy as it was operated in Inda's day and in Senrid's. Inda's year at the Academy is detailed with such richness that the reader can feel confident that every bottle in the cupboard is filled with some delightful liqueur, that every book upon the shelves has real pages that can be turned and read. We get to know these fierce people, still very barbarian at heart for all that they have settled down to live in castles and keep written records, and even come to sympathize with their stern sense of honor.

And it's that unyielding sense of honor that propels Inda straight into a tragedy of almost epic proportions when an Academy prank goes terribly awry. For Inda has enemies in high places, who see in his natural talent for leadership a threat to the king where in fact no such thing exists. Enemies who believe they are in fact doing the right thing, who want only to live up to the ideals of those they most admire.

However, Inda also has friends in high places, and those friends save him from what seems like certain destruction. It's at the price of losing everything he knows, including his family and country. But after an initial period of disorientation which looks an awful lot like survivor-guilt-generated depression, he finds his way back to himself. Soon others begin to look to him for leadership in his new environment just as they did back home in Iasca Leror.

Unfortunately, due to a last-minute change in plans which re-divided what would have been two volumes into three, this novel ends on a cliffhanger. Thankfully the second book is now out, so there is no longer a year-long wait stretching ahead.

It is interesting to note that Inda has been Sherwood Smith's most controversial book to date. When it first came out, it received a number of very angry reviews on Amazon.com decrying it as being full of sex scenes. This criticism is somewhat surprising because the references to sex are quite tastefully done, never becoming crude or explicit. There are far worse offenders all over the bookshelves, so it seems odd that readers should have been so vehement about the supposed sexual content.

However, at least part of the problem may well have been unmet expectations. Many readers were first introduced to the world of Sartorias-deles through Crown Duel, which is a young adult romantic adventure fantasy of the sweet variety. Although it may be assumed that Mel and Vidanric will have sex after they are married, particularly given that the single-volume paperback version includes a short story dealing with their daughter, the curtain is discreetly drawn upon their wedding. While there is plenty of romantic attraction and tension, it never becomes explicitly erotic -- that is, there is never even a mention of physical desire for the other person, only fascination with the personality. Thus many readers may well have come to Inda assuming that sex would similarly be kept invisible, and were unpleasantly shocked to have it show up, even handled as discretely as it was.

Review posted January 1, 2009

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