And I Darken
by Kiersten White
Published July 2016
From Goodreads: No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwyla likes it that way.
Ever since she and her brother were abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman sultan’s courts, Lada has known that ruthlessness is the key to survival. For the lineage that makes her and her brother special also makes them targets.
Lada hones her skills as a warrior as she nurtures plans to wreak revenge on the empire that holds her captive. Then she and Radu meet the sultan’s son, Mehmed, and everything changes. Now Mehmed unwittingly stands between Lada and Radu as they transform from siblings to rivals, and the ties of love and loyalty that bind them together are stretched to breaking point.
The first of an epic new trilogy starring the ultimate anti-princess who does not have a gentle heart. Lada knows how to wield a sword, and she’ll stop at nothing to keep herself and her brother alive.
Note: I wasn’t sure how I could fully review this without spoiling one of the plot points, so be warned.
Somehow, a UK edition of And I Darken ended up on the shelves of the used bookstore downtown, and it caught my eye right away. The second book, Now I Rise, had recently come out and I’d seen it talked up all over social media. Because I was interested in the premise– the story of Vlad III of Wallachia, but gender bent to tell a story with a Wallachian princess (Lada) instead of a prince– I picked it up and brought it home, where it languished on my shelves for a few months before I picked it up again. I’m sure there was some worry that I would end up not caring for the story.
I finally decided to put it on my November reading list, just to get it done already and see what all the fuss had been about.
I wasn’t sure of it at first. The story begins with the birth of the two main characters, Lada and then her younger brother Radu, and then follows them as they grow up in Wallachia before being shipped off to the Ottoman Empire as hostages to ensure their father, Vlad, will obey his Ottoman overlords. Many of the scenes from their childhood, though, are short and choppy. They skip back and forth between Radu and Lada so quickly that it was hard for me to settle into either perspective to pay attention to the story’s development before the chapter break led to a different POV. This was irritating, and kept me from developing a connection with either character, and after sixty-five pages of the constant back and forth, I was actually glad when my lunch hour ended and forced me to put the book away.
But because I like historical fiction, the era And I Darken is set in, and didn’t want to give up after a lousy hour or so of reading, I came back to it the next day. That was a good thing, too, because once Lada and Radu grow up enough to start taking action (and once Radu stops being terrified of everything), the story takes off. Chapters expand beyond the 3-5 page offerings from the first part, allowing the reader to get deeper in the characters’ mindsets, and the complications add up in a realistic and intriguing fashion.
Because I am not altogether familiar with the history of the end of the Byzantine empire and the reign of Mehmed the Conqueror, I don’t know how faithful the story is to the actual history of the region, outside of the obvious fact that Vlad the Impaler was not a woman. White does acknowledge the changes she has made in the historical note at the end, though, so any changes she has made are in service to the story, and not due to a lack of research on her part.
Lada started out being my favorite of the siblings. She was fearless and independent, refusing to let anyone tell her she couldn’t do something just because she was a girl. She tackled any subject put before her, from history to swordsmanship, and made a special effort to excel if her tutor acted like a girl could not master the subject. Her uncompromising nature, however, began to work against her about halfway through the story, after she finished puberty. The politics surrounding their friend Mehmed (the young emperor of the Ottoman empire who befriended them before his rise to the throne) had grown too complicated for Lada to handle with mere strength. She could no longer threaten or attack her way through a problem, and she didn’t know how to deal with that. Her intransigence and refusal to listen to the powerful women around her took her from being an adventurous girl to an aggravating woman. I would have happily shouted at her to just shut up and listen to someone already, but that wasn’t in her nature.
Radu, on the other hand, was aggravating in the beginning. He was never the son his father wanted, being a beautiful child who was often ill. Everything frightened him, and he would cling to his nurse and weep if someone raised their voice to him. It seemed like he could never really make a proper decision, and he probably would have gotten himself killed if Lada hadn’t been around to protect him. Can I blame him for his fear? No. Wallachia of the 1440s was a dangerous time, especially for a boy as sensitive as Radu. Can I grow weary of his constant weeping? Yes. But. As he got older and started to see that power doesn’t always rest in the hands of the best warrior, he grew more interesting. Unlike the uncompromising Lada, Radu could see when it was necessary to appear to be other than who he was in order to protect the ones he loved.
And speaking of love….
I don’t always expect historical fiction to deal with LGBTQ characters, and so when the summary mentioned a rivalry between Lada and Radu over Mehmed, I assumed it was friendship or influence at stake, not actual love. But both siblings fall in love with the young sultan, and this, of course, provides complications. I’m happy to report that none of this feels forced. Radu is not gay for the sake of diversity. His sexuality is just another aspect of his character, and the way other characters deal with this fact feels real, as well. For some, it is information they can use against Radu. For others, it’s a key to understanding his devotion to Mehmed. They don’t act like it’s an unnatural thing at all, because homosexuality was just as much a part of their society as it is in ours. I do wonder if these reactions would have been accurate to the time and place, but as Radu’s sexuality was generally a closely guarded secret, I’m willing to go with the way White handled it.
The relationship between Radu and Mehmed is wonderfully written, complex, and a little heartbreaking. Radu will do anything to help Mehmed, but Mehmed will never return this love in the way that Radu wants.
In the meantime, Lada has fallen for Mehmed and he for her, but she refuses to submit to him in anyway. She has seen what becomes of wives and concubines and can’t imagine a life for herself that involves either of those roles, so she refuses any man who approaches her with romantic intentions. The relationship between Lada and Mehmed felt a bit forced to me, and I wonder how much of it was written as a pure counterpoint to Radu’s relationship with Mehmed.
And I Darken is a quick read. I read the last two-hundred pages in one afternoon without much effort. The prose is nothing fancy and tells the story without getting in its own way. Save for those choppy first sixty-five pages, there is nothing particularly memorable about it. Fortunately, White’s characters are written so well that the prose doesn’t need to be particularly lovely to draw the reader’s attention.
The sequel, Now I Rise, came out last summer, so I will be looking it up one day soon to see how things fall out for our historical heroes. If the second book is as engaging as the first, then I hope the third book in this trilogy comes out next summer!