Keeper Shelf: Inda by Sherwood Smith



by Sherwood Smith
August 1, 2006 · DAW
Science Fiction/Fantasy

Squee from the Keeper Shelf is a feature wherein we share why we love the books we love, specifically the stories which are permanent residents of our Keeper shelves. Despite flaws, despite changes in age and perspective, despite the passage of time, we love particular books beyond reason, and the only thing better than re-reading them is telling other people about them. At length.

If you’d like to submit your reasons for loving and keeping a particular book for Squee from the Keeper Shelf, please email Sarah!

OK, Bitches, anyone here like diversity? Kickass female characters? Rich, detailed worldbuilding? Of course you do! And I have got the series for you! Allow me to tell you absolutely everything about it. Buckle up, this is gonna take awhile.

I read Inda for the first time in 10th grade, and it totally blew me away. It was different from anything I’d ever read, and it permanently altered the way I read (mostly by making me wayyy pickier). I adore this series, the characters, the world, everything. And no one has ever heard of it! Seriously, there are like three posts about it on Tumblr. So I’m here to unashamedly sell you on these books because I really need more people to read them.

Sherwood Smith writes stories in a lot of different worlds but the bulk of her work takes place on a world called Sartorias-deles, a planet with magic that is connected to our world by unpredictable, transitory World Gates. Most of Smith’s books are set in the modern era, thousands of years after humans first colonized the planet. Inda takes place 800 years before the present and functions as a biography of a legendary figure known as Elgar the Fox. The books don’t read like an actual biography, but they do have a different tone from the modern era books.

A crucial part of the history of this world is that thousands of years ago, a group of powerful mage women chose to carry out what amounts to a targeted genocide in an effort to rid the world of violence. They succeeded in eliminating physical rape and pedophilia. It’s a dark history, but it does mean that these books have no rape! These women of questionable morals also created universal birth control, leaving us with a world where women have complete control over their bodies and reproductive rights, and everything else aside, that is pretty damn awesome!

Our hero is Indevan-Dal Algara-Vayir, the second son of a prince (prince being an aristocratic title that ranks slightly above the other nobles, called Jarls) in the Marloven empire. Marlovens were plains-riding horse warriors who conquered a bunch of castle-dwellers, intermarried with them, and adapted to a sedentary lifestyle. Their culture revolves around war. The eldest sons of the Jarls are sent to the capital to attend the Military Academy while second sons are trained at home to act as their brothers’ Shield Arms. While the Jarls patrol their lands or ride to war, the Shield Arms are in charge of the “outer” home defense, in conjunction with the women who are tasked with the “inner” defense and have own Academy in the capital for the future wives of the Jarls and Shield Arms.

At the start of Book 1, ten-year-old Inda receives a summons to the Academy. The Royal Shield Arm (the king’s younger brother, called the Sierandael) has decided for the first time in history to bring all the second sons to train in the capital. For Inda this is simply an exciting and unexpected opportunity, but behind this decision lies a complex and rather dire tangle of political machinations.

Inda goes to the Academy and befriends the king’s second son Evred, which doesn’t go over well with the Sierandael or Evred’s older brother. It quickly becomes apparent that Inda is something of a military prodigy, which should be awesome but because of the aforementioned dire politics, the Sierandael decides he’s a threat. A boy dies in an accident, Inda is blamed, and the king arranges to have Inda disappeared to defuse the situation. So a traumatized, eleven-year-old Inda is whisked away in the night, placed on a merchant ship under the name Inda Elgar, and told that he cannot tell anyone who he is or ever come home again.

That takes us to about halfway through Book 1. The rest of that book and all of the next generally follow two main narratives. One is Inda adapting to life at sea and using his fighting and command skills to eventually build a pirate fighting fleet. Inda travels the world and runs into a lot of world politics and pisses off the Venn empire because they’re secretly allied with the pirates to take control of the oceans and generally becomes very famous as Elgar the Fox. This part is super fun because it’s all epic sea battles and swashbuckling adventures and because Inda is short and nondescript and has a tendency to look kind of vague so basically he doesn’t look the part of a notorious, kickass pirate-fighter. And his crewmate Fox (my baby) is tall, lean, and sardonic and dresses all in black, and everyone they meet assumes he’s Elgar the Fox (the naming confusion is important and complicated). So they use that to their advantage and run a lot of ruses and it’s great. The Fox is my favorite book.

The other main thread is the politics back home. The Marlovens are descended from the Venn (who are in turn descended from a very lost group of Vikings). The Venn home base is in the frozen north, but they have a powerful navy and an extensive empire, and they’re looking to expand south (they need fertile land to support that navy). And what better excuse for some conquering than “we’re just bringing the lost children back into the warm embrace of the motherland.” This has been a looming threat for centuries, but recently shit has started to get real, and the Marlovens are looking at the very real possibility of an invasion, causing all sorts of interesting and occasionally violent politicking. King’s Shield brings these two threads together with the Venn invasion, and Treason’s Shore is about the aftermath and global repercussions.

OK, now that we’ve got the basics down, let me explain what makes this series so damn awesome.

First of all, the world-building is incredible. Smith has been writing about this world for like 50 years, and it shows. We get the sense of an entire planet full of diverse cultures, each with unique political situations that interconnect at the global scale. These countries didn’t just appear one day fully formed; they have grown and changed and influenced each other for thousands of years. Marloven culture especially is just so fascinating to me. It’s everything you would expect from a bunch of nomadic horse warriors who just kind of decided to move into someone else’s castles one day and “get civilized.” Sherwood Smith has a timeline of pretty much everything that has happened in Marloven history. She doesn’t dump it all on you in these books, but it still shows in the way characters’ actions are constantly underwritten by awareness of historical context.

Then there are the characters. Inda is so much fun to follow as a main character. On the one hand, he’s this amazing prodigy and command comes so naturally to him, but he also has a strange kind of innocence and obliviousness, and the trauma that sent him to sea sort of froze part of him developmentally. It’s a beautiful thing to watch him inexorably bringing people into his orbit without even being aware, like in this scene right after he’s led a mutiny against a very nasty pirate, whose crew is primarily comprised of captives pressed into service:

“We never abandon crew.”

Fox heard an intake of breath from that weird little Chwahir, but she said nothing, just passed by with cleaning equipment and vanished into the captain’s cabin.

The rest of the pirates stared at Inda, and Fox could almost hear those simple words repeating in their heads like the echo of a bell down a valley. We never abandon crew. It was probably one of his regular rules for the marine defenders. To the pirates, Fox knew, and to Barend, watching from the helm, it was more like a world change. All of the old crew had seen Walic kill his own people on a whim or for fun. And if he decided to make a fast retreat before possible danger from a warship, he had abandoned scouts to whatever might happen without any apparent regret.

Now they faced Inda – not just his own people, but all of them – as unwavering as flowers tracking the sun.

The rest of the characters are just as nuanced and delightful. There’s Tau, the impossibly beautiful golden-haired, golden-eyed angel who is incredibly compelling and wonderful despite the fact that he is so beautiful that he literally has GOLD eyes. It should be such a cliché, but Tau is kind, observant, a little prickly and self-mocking, and I promise you will love him. Then there’s straight-talking, unfailingly loyal Jeje who has zero patience for kings and their idiotic politics. Quiet, serious Tdor who introduced me to the idea that I might be demisexual long before I knew that was a thing. My beautiful, moody-broody, sarcastic Fox who despite all efforts to the contrary is powerless against the pull of Inda’s stubborn, uncompromising desire to be good. Fox was my first bad boy love, a bitter, angry jerk who likes to claim that morality is a lie fabricate to support those in power, so fuck goodness, nothing matters but power and money! Then Inda comes along and just kinda stands aside and assumes Fox will work his shit out even though no one else trusts him. And lo and behold, Fox just keeps quietly opting out of one destructive decision after another until finally this dude comes along and tells him to grow the fuck up, and he does! So yeah, I can’t pick a favorite but also Fox is my fave (but also so is Tau…). Seriously, this series ruined me for a lot of books because most characters don’t feel nearly as real as these people.

So those are the things that make this series so enjoyable, but there are also things that make it really important. Namely that it has all kinds of diversity and representation. For starters, Inda is described as having uniformly brown eyes, skin, and hair, like the majority of people on this world. The Marlovens have a higher than average concentration of blonds due to their distant Viking ancestors, but most people (and therefore most characters) are darker skinned. There are also important characters with disabilities, including two people with dyslexia, and several people lose limbs in battle. A major theme in this series is the aftermath of horrific experiences like battle and torture, and I’ve always felt the series provides a sensitive and realistic handling of PTSD. No one is ever magically healed, but the love and support of friends and family is incredibly important. One of my favorite parts of the entire series is when Fox rescues someone (omitting name because spoilers) from a super creepy torturer who apparently wore perfume that smelled like pepper and oranges. The entire escape sequence is fantastic, but the most powerful part comes when they’re hiding out in the woods, and Fox starts to add pepper to the food he’s cooking:

“Don’t want pepper,” [X] said, too quickly, his stomach closing. “I’ll burn every pepper tree in Tenthan if I ever get home. Orange–” His voice trembled, and he shut his teeth with a click.

Fox set the pan down over the fire he’d set between two stones; then he hunkered down directly before [X]. “No, you won’t,” he said. He was serious, the way he had been the other night and never before. “You’ll plant pepper trees in every court. Orange trees, too, though I doubt they’ll grow. Plant ’em behind glass, and every day you wake up you sniff ’em and gloat because you are alive. Free. You survived.”

Did I mention I love Fox? This squee could really be all about Fox if I thought anyone would listen to me.

Anyway, continuing with the review. Next up, we have women who are powerful and kickass and complex!! Among the sailors, pirates, and privateers, there is no gender divide; men and women both lead and fight and cook and sew and whatever else there is. In contrast, Marloven culture is highly gendered, but women have no less agency or power. Men go to war, women defend. That means women train for war in their own academy with their only special, secret brand of martial arts. The noble women exchange a never-ending stream of coded letters in a kingdom-wide communication network by which they stay informed about history, magic, and the political situation. Marloven women are acutely aware of the dangers intrinsic to a culture that glorifies war, and they spend their lives preparing for the possibility that someone sensible may have to step in to prevent disaster.

And finally, there is diversity of sexuality, which is the aspect that made such a big impression on 10th grade me. It’s not just that there are homosexual, bisexual, demisexual, and asexual characters in central roles that have nothing to do with their sexuality. It’s that sex and sexuality are treated completely differently from how they are in our world. It’s not up for debate that sex is an important, healthy part of life. There is no history of trying to police women’s sexuality; they don’t even have the concept of virginity. Consensual sex of any variety is normal and positive. Having no sex is fine. Monogamy is fine. Polyamory is fine. Characters are in no way defined or labeled by their sexuality. I cannot begin to describe how cool it is to immerse yourself in a world like this one.

That being said, these books aren’t for everyone. For starters, there are a million characters and So. Many. Names. There’s also a lot of vocabulary, both Marloven words and slang terms, some explained and some not. A common thread running through this series is the way certain idioms, gestures, and concepts don’t really translate well. I love the discussions of language, the use of slang, the outlandish fantasy names. But it would probably be hell for someone with dyslexia or a bad memory for new words.

I also have to include a major trigger warning for child abuse and endangerment. Marloven society is harsh, built on a system of physical punishment that deliberately and inadvertently incites boys to hurt each other. As mentioned above, a boy dies in an accident.

Despite all this, these books aren’t dark or depressing or excessively violent. They are not like Game of Thrones. No creepy incest or pointless over-the-top cruelty. I’m pretty sensitive to violence, especially bone-breaking, and none of the battle scenes freaked me out (there’s a lot of blood but not so much gore or bone stuff). There are some truly heart-wrenching deaths, but the vast majority of the central characters make it through. I believe this series would be categorized as Noblebright fantasy. It is about people who love each other and want to take care of each other and do the right thing. Inda wants to make the world a better place, even though it’s not always clear how to accomplish that.

I need to just stop now cause every time I try to cut this down, it gets longer instead. I can go on and on and on about everything I love about these books, so I’m cutting myself off. They’re amazing, read them! (Please, I need more people to talk about them with.)

P.S. If four 700 page books is too daunting for you, there are other options (but please try Inda cause it’s the best). Banner of the Damned takes place 400 years after Inda and is narrated in first person by an asexual woman. There’s a whole bunch of books in the modern era that are geared towards younger audiences as well as several mostly standalone romances (that will eventually tie into the overall story arc). Most of these are great, but inexplicably largely lacking in the incredible diversity that sets Inda apart. Not everyone is white and straight, but most of the main characters are. (Which is why you should read Inda!!! Sorry, I’ll shut up now.)

Inda comes from Mikki’s Keeper ShelfShe recently graduated with a degree in biology and she has no clue what she wants to do with it. For now, she works from home in California, the better to maximize time spent riding her horse, fostering kittens, and generally hanging out with her cats, dogs, rats, and fish. This has the unfortunate side effect of enabling her continuing membership in the Bad Decisions Book Club.

There are so many reasons that Inda has earned a permanent spot on her keeper shelf. It’s partly that she happened to discover it in high school, and it had a profound impact on how she views the world, and in particular, how she approaches sexuality. Mikki says it’s partly because it offers comfort for any situation; it’s usually The Fox that she picks up when it’s 3am, and her anxiety says she probably won’t be sleeping anytime soon. But mainly it’s that Inda and Fox and Tau and everyone else feels so real to her, and sometimes she just needs to spend some time with them.

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