And I Darken by Kiersten White
Series: The Conqueror's Saga #1
Released: June 28th 2016
Rating: 5 stars
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.
I brought this book along with me to Europe as part of my European book reading spree (which I will make a post about, eventually). Along with me I also had The Crown's Game and A Gathering of Shadows. And I Darken is atypical in many senses from your usual YA historical fiction that takes place in Europe. Familiar settings include Russia, London, France, or Italy. I definitely wasn't expecting Wallachia (Romania) and a genderbent Vlad the Impaler.
By the end of this book, I wanted more of it. I'm glad this is a series, because the first book alone fulfilled all my favorite tropes, the ones I wish there were more of! Badass women. Lack of sappy romance. Defying gender roles. Well thought out court intrigue. Can I mention the lack of sappy romance? Is it even a romance? Lada eschewed romance for her love of Wallachia and that itself is admirable.
First of all, Lada, daughter of Vlad Dracul, is everything 15th century women were expected not to be. Ladylike? Screw that. She was brutal. She was blunt. She was angry and prideful. When she wanted something, nothing would stop her. Even if it was meant for a guy, she wanted it.
This is very much unlike her brother Radu, who is more subtle and less violent. He inherits the looks she lacks, as well as a certain way of words. Although they fight, or rather, she beats him every time he shows weakness, they're all the other has. Together, the two of them are sent away to live in the Ottoman court of Murad, and befriend Murad's son, Mehmed, having been betrayed by their father.
Lada dreams of Wallachia, her true home. Radu dreams of staying at court with Mehmed and converting to Islam. Mehmed dreams of becoming sultan and taking Constantinople. The three of them need each other, but love and deceit may destroy their friendship.
The three of them experience significant character development over the course of the novel, and growing up for them is similar, yet different to growing up today. As teens - Radu, Lada, and Mehmed question their allegiances, their feelings, and their future. But in the end, they grow into proud leaders in their own right.
I particularly enjoyed the feminist themes of And I Darken. Many times Lada brings up the question of femininity - whether she should use it to her advantage by getting married or not. Whether she should embrace being born a girl. Whether she should just stop fighting and be patient, as Murad's wife Mara did. What I liked what how the woman in the book used their femininity to their advantage. Huma and Mara played their parts in the court intrigue, marrying and having children first, but in the end got what they wanted (somewhat). Lada acknowledges the barriers and obstacles of being a woman, but refuses to let that deter her. While this may not seem like using femininity to her advantage, it was, in a way - Lada never gave up.
I also loved the relationship between Lada and Radu. This gender role reversal was fascinating to read, yes, but what was even better was their love of each other. They hurt each other numerous times, and their love is something akin to tough love (at least, from Lada's perspective), but it is undeniable that their bond is strong.
Radu: He had said this was his home. He had told the truth, and he had lied. Because Lada was his home, too, and now she was gone.Lada: They looked at her, ugly Lada, vicious Lada, and saw something precious. And she looked at them and saw Radu, her brother, her blood, her responsibility...
This veered from what I expected, in a pleasant way! I recommend it, if you're looking for calculating brutal female characters and a side of history that needs to be explored more often.