Whew! I'm finally finished all four of Sherwood Smith's Inda books. (When you download ebooks, you don't get a sense of how long they are: you don't get that satisfying heft of a thick book.) Now I can finally be productive again. (I've done pretty much nothing else but read for a week and a half, because they were so compelling.)
Sherwood Smith's name isn't as well-known as Robin McKinlay, Megan Whalen Turner, Orson Scott Card--but it should be. She has the ability of all the best fantasists: to make a world and a set of characters leap off the page and take residence in your brain, until you're quite certain you could buy a ticket and go visit, if only you could find the right train platform. What's unique about Sherwood Smith is that she has been working on the world of Sartorias-Deles since she was eight years old. I think she's actually been there. (My pet theory is that Smith is really a Norsundrian mage, and that's how she can skip through Sartorias-Deles's history observing everything and everyone.)
That's the strength and the weakness of Smith's Sartorias-Deles books: they read as if they were real history. The characters behave like real people, with all their contradictions and infuriating motivations; and the plots fit into a larger scope, so there are things that may not make sense in the current story, but that's what actually happened, historically. She has essentially an entire planet worked out, with political, magical, cultural and linguistic histories of probably 20 different countries. (Just go here and look at the map she's developed, and understand that for every country on that map she knows what their language sounds like, what their architecture and fashion looks like, what their food tastes like, not to mention the strengths and weaknesses of their political and military systems.)
So where should you start? So far I've only read the Inda books and Crown Duel/A Stranger to Command. I loved both sets of stories equally, but they do appeal to different readerships.
If you read my blog because you like all the YA and MG books I tend to like, then you should definitely read Crown Duel. (Make sure you get the version that includes Court Duel: they used to be published separately but the latest version of Crown Duel has both. Also, there's some awesome extra material at the end of my ebook that I don't know is there in the print version, so there's a good reason to get an e-copy. (Besides the fact that there aren't a lot of real books around.))
Meliara is one of the original kick-ass heroines (along with Harry and Aerin from Robin McKinley's Damar books, and Tamora Pierce's Alanna). The great thing about Meliara is that she's real. Sure, she's taken swordfighting, but she's not actually that good at it. She's idealistic and determined to right the wrongs in her country, but she's a little ignorant about politics and maybe doesn't make the best choices. She's got spunk--which gets her into more trouble than it gets her out of. And she's stubborn--which can be a good thing, but not always. But she has enough humility to recognize when she's wrong, and she wins everyone's hearts because of her honesty and courage.
The first half of the book (the original Crown Duel) is fighting and getting captured and escaping and being chased; the second half (Court Duel) is set at court (duh) with intrigue and plots and secrets and stuff. I'm not even going to mention the second main character, because you have to discover him for yourself. (Let's just say this is the best kind of romance: where the characters don't even know it's a romance until it's almost too late!) And when you do discover him, you'll be as anxious as I was to read A Stranger to Command, which is his coming-of-age story. (I'm not giving you a link, because I don't want you to go find out who he is before you read Crown Duel.) Then once you've read that, you'll want to read more about Sartorias-Deles, and find out about those mysterious Norsundrians.
I haven't read all the Sartorias-Deles stories Smith wrote when she was younger. They're not as polished, so I think I'll have to be in the right mood for them. (I will read them, because there are so many unanswered questions!) I decided to try the "historical" novels, which are set 400 years before Crown Duel.
If you're an adult* who likes really epic (ie: long and complicated) military fantasy, if you can handle lots of shifts of point of view, and if you don't mind being confused at the beginning as an entire social/military/political system with its own jargon is gradually revealed to you, then you'll like Inda and its sequels. The story begins with a ten-year old boy being sent to military academy. There's an Ender's Game-like section at the academy (which will be familiar to you if you read A Stranger To Command). Then Inda gets exiled and we enter the pirate phase of the story (I know: pirates!) Inda is very much an Ender-type of character, a brilliant strategist and a born leader who endures incredible suffering and remains good (kind, loyal, fair, unarrogant). He's the hero who doesn't recognize his own heroism. He and his group of loyal friends have all kinds of adventures culminating in great battles (both land and sea) against the invading Venn. The plot is epic, vast, with threads and characters going all over the place, but you care about all the characters. You care about Inda--oh, he breaks your heart! He's now up there with Miles Vorkosigan, Horatio Hornblower, Harry Dresden, Eugenides--as my current favourite noble, scarred heroes.
So far everything of Sherwood Smith that I've read is going to stay in my iPod for future escape-out-of-the-universe, fall-in-love-with-the-characters, can't-put-the-story-down comfort reading. And she's got a whole whack of other books I haven't even looked at yet. (But I have to pace myself: one must occasionally be productive.)
Since I can smell it now (I just took it out of the oven) and it is the best thing ever, I'm going to compare Sherwood Smith's books to Upside-down Buttermilk Pear Cake (which is also supremely scrumptious with plums instead of pears). To die for. I'm going to go have a piece right now. Then I think I'm going to download The Trouble With Kings. Or maybe The Spy Princess. Oops, I mean, I'm going to go be productive. Seriously.
*There's quite a bit of violence in the Inda books, though no gratituous gore, and definitely lots of sex--not graphic, but you know what's going on behind the bedroom door, and it's often pretty interesting. (Let's just say that there's probably no Marlovan word for "monogamy.")