Sherwood Smith has been writing fantasy novels and stories in her Sartorias-deles universe for over fifty years, since she was a child. The result is a literary edifice of incredible detail, scope and imagination, which has a large wiki (including several lengthy timelines) devoted to it. Sartorias-deles is a magical world in a different solar system, but there are gates between Sartorias-deles and our world that allow people (with the help of magic) to cross between the worlds. The prior novels are a mix of children’s, young adult and adult fiction.
A Sword Named Truth (2019) takes many pre-existing characters from Smith’s prior novels, particularly her children’s novels. Readers familiar with characters like Senrid, CJ, Clair, Liere, Puddlenose and Lilah will have a huge leg up. Several of the countries in Sartorias-deles are ruled by young teens, including Senrid (who has precarious rule over the military country of Maroven Hess), Atan (queen of Sartor, which is just emerging from a century of an enchanted stasis imposed by Norsunder), and Clair (queen of Mearsies Heili and gatherer of a tightknit band of young girls, including the feisty CJ). Jilo, once the enemy of Clair and CJ’s group, unexpectedly ascends to leadership of the benighted country Chwahirsland when its tyrannical king Wan-Edhe, a practitioner of dark magic, is abruptly abducted away to the even darker magical empire of Norsunder.
Most of these young rulers are dealing with troubles in their countries. Atan feels helpless against the iron will of the council and courtiers that surround her; Senrid is attempting to bring the rule of law to his country after deposing his usurper uncle, but the jarls (local lords) and the older students who exert power in the famous military academy of Marloven Hess are rebellious and disinclined to follow Senrid’s leadership. To make matters worse, Norsunder is once again on the move, and its combination of military might and incredibly powerful dark magic strikes terror into the hearts of many.
These youthful leaders are also using a “Child Spell” to prevent themselves from physically aging for a time, out of a combination of reasons, including distrust for adults and the belief that doing this will somehow give them protection against enemies from Norsunder. (It seems like a highly questionable call to me, but it’s a long-established part of the Sartorias-deles canon, and you just have to roll with it.) Given their suspicion of adults, it seems natural for these young leaders to band together and form an alliance to help each other out, and in fact that’s what’s proposed by some of them quite early in the novel, but their insecurities, personality clashes, and prior conflicts are making it difficult to effectively band together.
I first fell in love with Smith’s Sartorias-deles world when I came across her YA novel Crown Duel many years ago, a truly charming mix of adventure, romance and court intrigue. Since then I’ve read many of her Sartorias-deles novels; I consider myself a fan and reasonably well-educated in Sartorias-deles history and its timeline. A Sword Named Truth was a challenging read for me, though, as I think it will be for most readers who aren’t familiar with Sartorias-deles lore generally and, in particular, aren’t conversant with the stories and plots of the children’s and YA novels that directly precede A Sword Named Truth in this universe’s timeline. The one part of the Sartorias-deles books that I’ve skipped over are these children’s novels, including (but not limited to) Fleeing Peace, Senrid, The Spy Princess, and the CJ’S NOTEBOOKS series, and it so happens that those are all fairly directly tied to the plotline of A Sword Named Truth and lay the groundwork for what happens in this new novel.
It’s possible to engage with this world and with A Sword Named Truth without being familiar with the plots and characters of those prior books, and Smith does provide enough information about what has previously happened that readers who are newcomers won’t be completely at sea. But it does make it a distinct challenge. A glossary, list of characters, and a map would have been greatly helpful, though you can find these things and a wealth of other information on the aforementioned wiki and on Smith’s website. Following so many different characters also results in a fragmented and often confusing plot, with a lot of jumping from head to head and country to country. Some of the plotlines, like Jilo’s and Senrid’s, were much more intrinsically interesting than others, and I enjoyed their adventures and character development. On the other hand, I never was able to really effectively distinguish the main Norsundrian villains, Detlev, Siamis and Kessler, from one another.
A Sword Named Truth also stands at a somewhat uneasy crossroads between Smith’s children’s novels and her adult ones. The main characters are mostly teenagers and tweens, though only CJ ― by far the most immature and annoying (to me) character ― acts in a truly childish way. There’s some violence but no language or sexual content. But the length of this novel (almost 650 pages), its slow and deliberate pacing, and the writing style are much more adult in nature. The final quarter picks up the pace, but I thought that overall the novel would have benefitted from losing a hundred or so pages.
A Sword Named Truth is the first book in the new RISE OF THE ALLIANCE series. It isn’t the best entry point for this world for readers who are new to or relatively unfamiliar with the world of Sartorias-deles. I’d recommend starting with the INDA series (beginning with Inda, set about 900 years earlier) for more mature readers, or Crown Duel (set about 10 years after A Sword Named Truth) or Sasharia en Garde! (originally published in two parts as Once a Princess and Twice a Prince, and set a few years after Crown Duel in a different country) for young adult readers. If you enjoy children’s fantasy, start with the children’s novels mentioned above. But dedicated fans of Sherwood Smith will find A Sword Named Truth a fascinating step forward in the lives of many familiar characters.