Title: And I Darken (2016)
Series: The Conquerors Saga – Book 1
Author: Kiersten White
Genre: Young Adult, Historical
Extent: 484 pages
Release Date: June 28, 2016
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.
The first book I’ve heard of Kiersten White is Paranormalcy, which, honestly speaking, didn’t impress me that much. This was back when paranormal romance YA was everything I read, and Paranormalcy struck me as very “been there done that”. I actually can’t recall what the book is about at all, and reading its summary on Goodreads didn’t ring any bells. And I Darken, however, was so different — so much better — from Paranormalcy, the two didn’t even seem like they were written by the same person… and in a good way, too.
Despite the fact that this book is shelved as ‘Fantasy’ on Goodreads, there isn’t actually any magic. And I Darken was really more historical rather than anything, kind of a loose retelling of Vlad the Impaler with characters changed. The book opens at the birth of our very own Vlad — Ladislav ‘Lada’ Dragwlya, a girl, in this retelling — and follows her as she grows up.
As the baby latched on with surprising fierceness, the nurse offered her own prayer. Let her be strong. Let her be sly. She looked over at the princess, fifteen, lovely and delicate as the first spring blossoms. Wilted and broken on the bed.
And let her be ugly.
If you think you’ve encountered brutal heroines before, wait until you meet Lada. Born a princess of Wallachia, Lada is tough, violent, wicked cunning, and sometimes actually evil. She doesn’t flinch when inflicting pain on someone else, she’s fierce and doesn’t scare easy, and she’s loyal to only herself. She also hates that she is born a woman, a theme that’s reinforced over and over again throughout the story.
Our second main character is Radu, Lada’s brother, who provides a very stark contrast to Lada’s fierceness. Where Lada is jagged edges and sharp teeth, Radu is gentle hands, soft smiles, and eternally full of fear. He’s flimsy, he’s weak, he’s nothing a ruler should be — at least until the second half of the book unfolds and we see that he, too, has his own strength and that and he’s smart enough to use it.
“People respond to kindness, Lada. They trust a smile more than a promise that you will leave them choking on their own blood.”
Lada snorted. “Yes, but my promise is more sincere than your smiles.”
We also have Mehmed, the sultan’s son, forming the last leg of an unlikely trio with Lada and Radu, who to be honest doesn’t really much of an impression to me. I was more interested in the other supporting characters: Nicolae, Bogdan, Lazar, Kumal, and others. There are a lot of characters in this book, but they all have their purpose.
For a book set in an era where men dominated absolutely, And I Darken has a wonderfully interesting cast of female characters. Rather than the men, I was more taken by the women: Mara, a sultan’s wife, is bitter but smart and strategic, resigned to her fate but also determined to make the best out of her position; Halima, another wife, is happy, grateful, naive; Huma, Mehmed’s mother, is ambitious and cold, and she has waited forever for her chance to pounce. In spite of their rare appearances, these women are so very different and so well-characterised that I delighted whenever they grace the pages.
“But there are many ways to be powerful. There is power in stillness. There is power in watching, waiting, saying the right thing at the right time to the right person. There is power in being a woman—oh yes, power in these bodies you gaze upon with derision.” Huma ran one hand down her ample breasts, over her stomach, and rested it on her hip. “When you have something someone else wants, there is always an element of power.”
The pacing of And I Darken is quite slow, but I think it suits the story very well. While there is some action, the bulk of the tension actually comes from the politics between the characters and the empires they’re involved with. Other than that, there is a lot of plotting to start wars, overthrow leaders, murder brothers — and some romance, but not too much. I did think that the first half of the book was more interesting than the second, but I was mostly kept engaged the whole time.
Now, I know very little about the Ottoman Empire and can’t comment on the historical accuracy, but I did a little bit of Googling after finishing And I Darken and would say that for the most part, it seems like White did her best recreating the setting. It was satisfying to read about a historical period not very often chosen in YA fiction.
“The price of living seems to always be death.”
“And that is why you become a dealer of death. You feed death as many people as you can to keep it full and content so its eye stays off you.”
There are more things I’d like to mention (such as Lada and Radu’s relationship, squee, as well as how elegantly the theme of religion is woven into the story), but I fear this review is already several paragraphs too long, so I’m going to stop here. Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who loves a slow-boiled story with political intrigue and engaging characters. Just a really intense, gripping read!