And I Darken by Kiersten White
No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over their every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets.
Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, Radu feels that he’s made a true friend—and Lada wonders if she’s finally found someone worthy of her passion.
But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against—and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point.
Series: The Conqueror's Saga, #1
Published by Delacorte Press on June 28th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction, Alternate History, Epic Fantasy, Young Adult
Source: Purchased Book
Overall Review- 4.5 out of 5:
This is a dark, twisted, savagely beautiful story almost Gothic in its imagery and fearless in its storytelling. It is an immersive experience; one I fully intend to revisit often. It’s witty, at turns touching, more than occasionally funny (alright that might just be me), and unapologetically violent when need be.
Lada is a young woman who’d reply, “Thank you.” If someone told her she was too aggressive and angry. She’d also very likely mark them as an enemy who may need to be eliminated. If she didn’t punch them squarely in the face right then and there. In other words, a girl after my own heart.
I first heard about And I Darken during a group author signing at Mysterious Galaxy this past February. An audience member asked the author, Kiersten White, if she had any upcoming projects she was particularly excited about. She then talked about her trip to Transylvania with her husband and visiting places associated with Dracula. She went on, talking about her extensive researching (she’s a pretty huge fan of the Ottoman Empire) and her decision to explore this world with a female protagonist.
Now, when someone mentions they want to write a fictional story based on a well-known literary/historical figure AND says they want to flip the gender of the protagonist, I’m interested to see where they’ll take things. When they say that someone is Vlad the Impaler, I stare at them intently wondering if they can tell I’ve decided I’ll have to kill them if they mess it up… .
After reading installment 1, Kiersten White must live on to write parts 2 and 3 of this story because I absolutely must know where this journey goes next. (puts away sharpened weapons satisfied…for now).
The Historical Setting:
Kiersten White uses the time of Vlad Dracul and the heirs to the Drăculești throne to realistically set her story in-country. Her faithfulness to the historical weight of the time period in both, the imagery and her storytelling (she doesn’t use contractions people; not.at.all) choices, pull you into a landscape the breadth of the Ottoman Empire itself.
Although, White has publicly stated that writing scenes are not her strong suit, that struggle was not apparent here. The descriptions were just as vivid and essential as the dialogue. Placing the life events of her characters around and within the shadows of known historical events in the life of Vlad the Impaler; she navigates aptly both her story arcs and history. Her research shows in the setting, utilization of historical speculation, and choice of pivotal historical moments; all used to great advantage.
If you know anything about this historical time period, you should applaud White’s savvy use of facts and actual occurrences to weave a timeline that dances between known events. If you don’t, you still walk away with a sense of the time and motives of the players. You’ll think you know the history of the time period.
*I do suggest people keep in mind: 1) The basis of this story is a historical figure. This means there are rules (aka history) that must be respected. 2) Don’t expect the story to jump around to the time when Lada’s all “kicking ass and taking names” – she has to learn how to do that first. Every Hero and Anti-Hero has an origin story. 3) Don’t expect to see any dragons. Vlad the Impaler was known as The Dragon.
Meet Ladislav Dragwlya (Lada if you’d like to avoid a throat-punch or shiv…) born of a weak-willed mother and a brutal father; in the kingdom of Wallachia-annexed country of the Ottoman Empire. Her father, Prince Vlad Dracul saw nothing of worth in the birth of a daughter. He was no more pleased a year later after the birth of her sweet-faced brother Radu. The contrast between Lada and Radu quickly became obvious.
“If Lada was the spiky green weed that sprouted in the midst of a drought-cracked riverbed, Radu was the delicate, sweet rose that wilted in anything less than the perfect conditions.”
Her father wanted nothing to do with either child; particularly after Lada proved to be far from classically beautiful. Next to her angelic-faced baby brother, her lack of the expected attributes a princess must have to be necessary in a merciless world is striking.
“Lada had big eyes, but hers were close-set, with arched bows that made her look perpetually cross. Her hair was a tangled mass, so dark that her pale skin appeared sickly. Her nose was long and hooked, her lips thin, her teeth small and…quite sharp.”
Her father’s disappointment in her gender, lack of looks, and her brother’s seemingly weak nature, remained sharp and bitter until the day she attacked him with a knife. It was then he realized, while he didn’t have another fierce son, he certainly had a Wallachian warrior.
“I am your father. But that woman is not your mother. Your mother is Wallachia. Your mother is the very earth we go to now, the land I am prince of.”
White guides the reader using significant life moments to drive home the emotions and beliefs at the characters’ core; the sentiments that define and guide them throughout their lives. Though, none have any idea at the start how very far from home they’ll travel and how very thoroughly they’ll each be be tested.
Through the the third person (limited) and alternating narrators we experience the characters not only through their actions and thoughts but through the lens of other key persons as well. It’s highly effective in showing us how each views the actions of another and the misunderstandings and mistakes that result.
The Main Characters:
Presenting Lada from birth provides the reader the opportunity to witness first-hand her emotional and psychological development. First as a wild-child neglected by her mother and ignored by her father yet rabidly possessive of her younger brother. We watch as this feral child becomes her father’s devotee soaking in his pride and fierce love of Wallachia. We follow the siblings watching as Lada grows, wishing to remain true to her beloved homeland- while Radu struggles with his desire to embrace aspects of their new life.
Have no fear, you learn what motivates and matters to Radu. He is by no means a throwaway or uncomplicated character. His story is so interwoven that talking about it too much results in serious spoilers. I HATE major spoilers. Let’s just leave it at: Radu possesses unparalleled cunning; otherwise he’d never have survived to puberty, trust me.
Mehmed’s (the son of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire), a figure of continued historical significance, entrance into the story is both believable and memorable. Bringing the three main players together naturally. This is a love triangle waiting to happen from the moment of their very first meeting.
If you’re not interested in a love story that touches on the struggles of love in its many forms, you’re reading the wrong book. White does not tip-toe around exploring the feelings and relationship(s) that develop between Mehmed, Lada, and Radu. With age and exposure to life (somewhat) within the Sultan’s household you see each mature, come together and grow apart.
In the face of parental abandonment, dueling loyalties, dangerous liaisons and conflicting needs; Lada grows into a talented warrior, vicious fighter, and driven leader fully intent upon achieving her aims using whatever means necessary.
“Her spine was steel. Her heart was armor. Her eyes were fire.”
You may (I certainly did) find yourself agreeing with a particularly harsh decision Lada makes because you know what’s driving her. Then you’ll realize you just advocated something seriously f*ed up. Her complexity is compelling; knowing her motives removes the impulse to write her off as nothing more than an unnecessarily brutish, and therefore unlikable, character. Lada is a anti-hero in the truest sense of the word.
Life, love, and the choices to be made in the time of Ottoman Empire are brutal and often times cold-blooded… just like our Princess.
“And so she cut her heart out and offered it as a sacrifice. She would pay whatever price her mother Wallachia demanded.”
This isn’t simply a story of a struggle to survive. This is the beginning of a journey of self-discovery, romance, angst, loyalty, betrayal, sacrifice, and war.
Welcome to the Conqueror’s Saga.
Heads will roll, Bodies will be impaled and Hearts will be Broken.