As sartorias, Sherwood is one of my LJ friends, and that makes it feel a little strange to be reviewing one of her books here. However, I'm happy to say that I can pay her not one but several ultimate reader's compliments:
1. I didn't want to finish Inda
2. I can't wait to RE-read it
3. I think I'm going to go straight out and buy Fox in hardcover
4. I may quite conceivably go online and see if I can buy a hardcover of Inda, to keep.
There. Yes - I liked it that much.
There are many pleasures to be found in Inda. First and perhaps foremost for me as not only a reader but a teacher of literature is the writing. I can and have read a lot of fairly undistinguished writers and forgiven them because I am a fan of fantasy writing generally and enjoy escapist reading. On the other hand, it is always a delight when all the fantasy elements are supported by really good prose, as in this case.
Then, for me as a fantasy reader, another great pleasure here is the worldbuilding. This is perhaps the most original universe I have discovered since - I don't know when. Perhaps Robin McKinley's Damar, but even that, as one cover blurb declared, is like a cross between Gunga Din and The Sheik. I'm happy to report that this world is neither yet another medieval pastiche, nor set in some Napoleonic Europe that never was. I haven't quite figured out what it reminds me of - what is so terrific about it is that it doesn't. For some reason, I get vaguely Eastern European vibes. Sherwood's cover artist obviously took the "Inda" rather literally and portrays someone who looks as if he wouldn't be out of place in the Raj - that can't help but color some of my mental constructions when imagining the setting and the society. However, suffice it to say that this is a fascinating world with an extremely complicated - and dangerous for its citizens - political system. One reason I want to re-read it is to go back and make myself better acquainted with the political and social structure. I like the understated feminism of this world - women hold and seem to take for granted certain powers and privileges.
Indeed, understatement is one of the powerful elements of this book. While we're on the subject of "feminism" and female power in the society, there is the curious aspect that men seem to be able to give birth. This is HUGE. I can imagine whole novels being spun on this single idea. It is almost a casual aside here, yet Sherwood is a thoughtful enough writer that we can see that she's worked out all the potential societal impacts of that one possibility and that these are woven into the fabric of the world we see portrayed in the novel. I have to confess that once in a while I found myself longing for a good old "info-dump" - everything is "show not tell" here. But working hard doesn't mean slog, and the book is good enough that the challenges are not tiresome, only incentives to read more carefully and to reread.
Then, of course, there are the characters, not least Inda himself, who is a delight, but Sherwood introduces us to a whole - well, world full of complex and interesting people. Without recourse to the more showy POV effects of a George R Martin, we find ourselves in the heads of heroes, potential heroes, villains and potential villains. "Potential" is something of the operative word, too, because most of these characters are very young. Inda is, I believe, sixteen at the END of the book. I can't wait to see what they are all going to become.
Despite the youth of its protagonists, this is definitely not a Young Adult fantasy. And I don't mean just because it has sex in it and a fairly liberal attitude to sexual orientation. Because it is a full-fledged, mature, work of Adult fantasy, serious in themes and tone. It has gravitas, which is unusual in today's culture of the 30-second YouTube fix. Perhaps in that sense it is in some way Old Fashioned, but I mean that as a compliment.
And then there's the plot. Political machinations and pirates! Oh my! Capital R Romance, and the potential for romance, too. A wronged hero, a misunderstood younger son, many people pursuing all kinds of different, hidden agendas. How is it all going to turn out? I can't wait.
I loved this book, but I think you've gathered that by now.