YA Weekend: And I Darken by Kiersten White
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Historical Fantasy, Young Adult
Series: Book 1 of The Conquerors Saga
Publisher: Delacorte Press (June 28, 2016)
Length: 496 pages
Prince Vlad III of Wallachia, known in his day as Dracula, also later received the sobriquet of Vlad the Impaler for his cunning cruelty and fondness for brutally punishing his enemies. But what if Prince Vlad had been Princess Ladislav…a girl? What choices would she have made? How would others have regarded her? How would the world have been different? These questions and more are explored in Kiersten White’s young adult alternate history novel, whose premise to actively subvert the archetypical princess trope immediately drew me in.
Indeed, Lada is not your average princess. Imagine spending your childhood and your formative teenage years as a political hostage far from home, your fate in the hands of your cold-hearted father who gave you up as a promise to remain loyal to the Ottoman empire. After that, Lada knew she could count no one but herself. For the longest time, there were only two constants in her life: her love for Wallachia, the country she vows she will one day return to, as well as her love for her younger brother Radu who, along with Lada, was also handed over to Sultan Murad to ensure their father’s obedience. Radu may not be a fighter, but he’s also the only family Lada cares about now, after her father has proven weak in her eyes.
Keeping her hatred for the Ottomans burning in her heart, Lada nonetheless goes through the motions, learning the culture, philosophy, and religion of her captors—though she fights her tutors every step of the way and refuses to forget her roots. She also learns the art of combat from elite Janissaries, who allow her to train with them after she impresses them with her ferocity and determination.
Against her judgment though, Lada ends up caring for another. Almost from the moment she and her brother meet Prince Mehmed, the young son and heir of Murad, the three of them have become virtually inseparable. As the children age, Mehmed becomes more than just a friend to both Lada and Radu. Lada, however, has never forgotten her promise to Wallachia, and even though she is still the same fierce princess, there’s also no denying that her years in the Ottoman court have changed her in other ways.
As promised, Lada is a brutal and violent princess, even as a child (perhaps a preview of the adult she will one day become). Initially, I was a little disappointed that we had to spend so much of the book focused on her early life, but then the story evolved into a very interesting coming-of-age tale. When she still lived in Wallachia, Lada worshipped her father, wanting nothing more than to make him proud. Sadly, Vlad II didn’t really have much respect for girls, and later on Lada realizes to her anger and disappointment just how little he cared about his family. Her character remained unbowed after her arrival at the Ottoman courts, however, and she certainly didn’t take too kindly to being a political prisoner either, breaking a tutor’s nose when the man dared to offend her. I really enjoyed Lada’s character, because for all her recklessness and impotent raging, she’s definitely someone who can take care of herself.
Despite Lada being the main protagonist though, all my heart and sympathies actually ended up going to Radu, who became my favorite character. While Lada’s life was heartbreaking, Radu’s story utterly destroyed me. For all this book is centered on the brutal princess, I could probably go on forever about the gentle prince. Radu may be timid and weak, but he shows his strengths in other ways, opting for deep thinking and subterfuge in situations where his big sister would probably go in guns blazing. Unlike Lada, Radu actually manages to thrive in the Ottoman court, embracing all its ways. However, the most gut-wrenching part is when he falls in love with Mehmed, even knowing that his feelings will never be reciprocated. As if that’s not enough, he then has to watch the object of his affections fall for his sister. Poor Radu. I’ve never wanted so badly to reach into a book and give a character a hug. This book also portrayed the topic of sexuality wonderfully, capturing Radu’s internal struggle with much compassion and humanity.
It’s the relationships that make this novel. The description touts a love triangle, but as you can see, it’s like nothing you’d expect. There are so many complicated emotions between the two siblings, with love and loyalty sometimes giving in to resentment and jealousy. Lada and Radu are polar opposites of each other, with one having a fiery personality while the other is more soft and sweet-tempered. One also despises the Ottomans with all her heart, while the other has all but adopted their prison as his home. The one thing they do have in common is their love for Mehmed, but that relationship is also the cause of so much explosive friction in this book.
It probably comes as no surprise that I really enjoyed this. And I Darken is a character-oriented novel, the kind I love, where the bonds between people form the very essence of the story. The complex relationship between Lada, Radu, and Mehmed was so all-consuming that it made overlooking some of the book’s weaknesses a little easier. There were some minor annoyances, like mildly purple prose or some plot pacing issues, but I think one of my key regrets is that this story wasn’t as dark as the blurb teased. While Lada is modeled after the real Vlad the Impaler, who is known for his sadism and cruelty, the author probably pulled some punches on Lada’s ruthlessness in order to make the character more likeable (not to mention the book more age appropriate, but even by YA standards this is pretty tame…and so is Lada). To be fair, I know this is the story of her early life, but somehow I think I’ll still find it hard to reconcile the person she is now to the bloodthirsty ruler she’ll no doubt become if the rest of the series seeks to continue to echo Vlad’s reputation.
I’m looking forward to finding out how it’ll all play out, though. The scene is now set for the next book of The Conquerors Saga and I’m fantastically excited to see what will happen next in Lada’s journey.