Review: And I Darken

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Review:

ETA: I wrote this review after I finished an advanced copy of the book in April, before the Pulse shooting in Orlando that claimed 49 lives. As I’ve been reflecting on this novel, the political climate, and the impact of the shooting on the LGBT+ community as well as the Muslim community, I wanted to add something: a thank you to the author. We need books with queer characters. We need books with Muslim characters. We especially need books that let these two identities intersect, and we need ones that handle religion with all of the nuance and complexity that it deserves. Writing any of those things is risky in the current market, though, and I applaud Kiersten White for doing it anyway.

You are standing on the peak of a cold, northern mountain. Below you, a wilderness spreads out over the foothills like a quilt. You see a castle, crumbling; the prince within it is not a prince, but a servant to the overwhelming power of the Ottoman Empire. War broils outside the walls of Constantinople. The Pope prepares for crusade. And at home, you and your little brother are leagues away from safe, even if you do not know it yet. What role will you play in your own future?

This is the world Kiersten White presents in her new historical thriller, And I Darken, a daring retelling of the life of Vlad the Impaler — except, in this world, Vlad was born a woman.

I know. I was skeptical, too. My first thought was, Oh, God, not more vampires. My second thought was, How could anyone possibly pull this off? The good news is that (so far) there are no vampires. The better news is that White pulls this unconventional concept off with flying colors.

Every so often, an upcoming YA book is touted as Game of Thrones for teens. Usually that just means it’s vaguely medieval and a lot of people die. This is the only one I’ve read so far that truly captures the kind of intrigue and rich characterization that makes GoT such a perennial favorite, instead of just the violence. Not that And I Darken is lacking in murder. Between assassinations, wars, coups, and the heroine’s own bloodlust, this book definitely has a body count.

Our heroine, Lada, is zealously devoted to proving herself better than the men in her life. And she is, in every aspect of her harsh medieval life: she’s a master tactician, a cunning politician, and a fierce warrior. She ruthlessly denies herself any attachments in order to protect herself from manipulation and “weakness.” I expected to find the latter trait obnoxious — how many times have I read a book with a “cold-hearted” character who melted at the first smile from a cute boy? — but what makes Lada so delightful is that she is uncompromising. Where she has convictions, she sticks to them, even if she burns the world and all the people in it in the process. Did you wish there was a whole book about Arya Stark kicking ass and taking names? Well, here you go.

(I’ve seen other reviews complaining that Lada is game-breakingly unlikable, and I call sexist bullshit on those reviews. First of all, she isn’t. Second of all…did you not read “gender-swapped Vlad the Impaler” in the blurb? Third of all, you know you wouldn’t say that if “she” was “he.” Come talk to me when you’re as harsh with Ender Wiggin or Holden Caulfield.)

Her brother, Radu, who provides a vivid counterpoint to Lada’s viciousness, is a kind and charming boy who is no less devious for it. Bullied by his sister and considered the “soft” one of the pair, he nonetheless brings a quiet strength of character to the story — that is, the strength to be himself, even behind an unshakable courtly mask.

Both siblings contrast beautifully with Mehmed, the future ruler of the vast and fierce Ottoman Empire at its height of influence. He’s ambitious, sometimes foolishly so (or is he? History will tell.) He’s also a devoted friend to them both at a time when they need a friend the most. He arrives partway through the book, but his impact is immediate: Lada and Radu find a companion and patron in him, but also a rival and a potential enemy. The trio begins a toxic balancing act of power and loyalty even as Lada and Radu both begin to fall helplessly in love with Mehmed.

At that point, I set the book down and said, Whoa.

(I also gave myself a moment to cry happy tears, because medieval gays. I guess Santa decided I was a good girl this year.)

There aren’t enough good things I can say about this novel. I wish I’d had sticky notes with me when I read it, because I would have passed it on to the next bookseller fully annotated.

It is a great, great pity that a lot of adult fans of historical fiction will likely ignore this title just because it’s sold as Young Adult, because their bookshelf will be lesser for it. I’m not an expert on the late 1400s, but White’s world-building and attention to detail is so razor-fine that I can only assume she is. From the brooding forests of Wallachia to the opulence of an Ottoman palace to the siege-grounds of a Bohemian castle, the history in this novel is viscerally alive. This is a novel to be savored. Readers of The Historian, Outlander, and (as mentioned) Game of Thrones should snatch up this gem and treasure it.

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It’s Not a “Them” Problem

It’s hard to find the words.

Early this morning, 50 people were murdered at a club in Orlando, Florida. I didn’t know them, but it doesn’t feel like a stranger’s tragedy. They were my family, my lovers, my friends, my community. I am an accident of birth away from being one of the victims.

Maybe because it hits so close, my stomach turns at each new disgusting tweet or Facebook post from people falling over themselves to place the blame for this violence on Muslims. As if our “Christian nation” would never conceive of such an act.

You can go fuck yourself.

You have spent decades seeding your hatred and bigotry through our culture and politics. You called for the extermination of the LGBT community, fought for pro-discrimination laws, made us targets of bombings during the battle over harmful bathroom laws, driven us to suicide through conversion therapy, or left hundreds of thousands of children to starve on the street because Billy Graham told them a dead kid was better than a gay kid.

Did you think we just forgot?

I will not stand by while you turn that same hatred and violence against others. Muslims didn’t do this. You did this.

Review: Doreen

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  • Release Date: June 7th, 2016
  • Author: Ilana Manaster
  • Website: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25361916-doreen
  • ISBN: 9780762459629

Review:

If you’ve ever wished that Oscar Wilde could have taken a crack at writing Mean Girls, do I have a book for you.

Doreen takes place in a New England prep school for the luxuriously wealthy and follows the (mis)fortunes of three students: Heidi Whelan, a vicious socialite hiding a modest background and immodest secrets; Biz Gibbons-Brown, an awkward but talented photographer struggling to find her muse; and Doreen Gray, Biz’s younger cousin, a shy, bullied, and plain-looking girl who is only there on the whim of her estranged father. After Biz photographs Doreen and doctors the final image, Doreen wakes up the next morning and finds that she looks like the beautiful, photoshopped girl in the picture.

As you may have guessed, the novel is a modern, gender-swapped retelling of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and it plays out exactly as you might hope it would. The prose leans heavily on Wilde’s style, particularly in its elevated and pointedly formal dialogue, but it never feels like an affectation. The characters are complicated and mostly unlikable, but they are not necessarily people — just as in Wilde’s original, they are larger than life because their story is more allegory than novel. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but Manaster makes it work for her. The modern American setting brings Wilde’s original dissection of the upper classes back to the forefront of the story. Though it doesn’t talk about the 1% or the Occupy movement, Doreen shines on a spotlight on the ugly lives of people who are simply too rich to care about consequences.

There is a lot of aspects of the novel that I didn’t care for. The addition of the character Roland only harms the novel. Dorian and Henry had the luxury of being morally bankrupt for the sake of being morally bankrupt. Doreen and Heidi need an overwrought backstory with a cruel, distant father figure to motive their actions. It’s a dull and disappointing loss of agency that serves no purpose except, I suppose, to reinforce the idea that girls are only villainous if they’ve been corrupted. Heidi even has a passing encounter with redemption through true love.

Worst of all is not one, but two false accusations of assault in the book. I understand that it shows how truly horrible the characters are. They’re lying about something you should never lie about. I get it. But I can’t tolerate it. You don’t get to use that as a plot device until we live in a world where people don’t assume sexual assault allegations are false, especially not when you’re writing for and about teenagers, who are the most likely to be disbelieved and silenced.

So, overall, did I like Doreen? I did. Its flaws don’t outweigh its moments of brilliance, and I’d like to see more YA books experiment with the style and the kind of narrative. However, its flaws are still pretty big and glaring, and for some readers, they’re going to be as impossible to ignore as the monster Doreen sees in her photograph.

Review: You Know Me Well

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  • Release Date: June 7th, 2016
  • Author: Nina LaCour and David Levithan
  • Website: http://davidlevithan.com/ and http://ninalacour.com/home
  • ISBN: 9781250098641

Review:

At the end of the day, all you really need to know about this book is that it’s a fantastic collaboration between two of YA’s best and brightest, Nina LaCour and David Levithan. There is no question of the quality of the work with this one — these two are at the top of their game, and You Know Me Well brings the best of their styles together seamlessly.

The breezy novel clocks in at a little over 250 pages and cheerfully sprints after Kate, an artistic lesbian, and Mark, a gay boy from the baseball team, as their relationships and their lives start to fall apart around them. Oh, and it’s set during Pride Week in San Francisco, with all of the celebrations and other rainbow characters that implies. Doesn’t it sound awesome? Well, it is.

To give a bit more detail, this is a novel about uncertainty. Mark is in love with his sort-of boyfriend, sort-of best friend Ryan, but the two are drifting apart and Mark is desperate to figure out a way to bring the two of them back together. Kate is a talented artist with the biggest case of impostor syndrome I’ve seen in a YA book — something I’m sure lots of teens will relate to, even if they don’t yet have a name for the feeling — and she’s been nursing a crush on her best friend’s cousin to keep herself distracted from the start of her new life at UCLA.

These characters are a trainwreck. They’re dysfunctional. They hurt themselves and each other. They fall in and out of love. They sneak into elite San Francisco parties. They make mistakes that have real consequences. It’s all gloriously messy, just like real life, and I wish more YA books captured the chaos and the anxiety of early adulthood as well as LaCour and Levithan have.

Best of all, the ensemble cast is almost entirely queer. I think the kids’ parents may be the only straight characters in the book. Some people might think that’s somehow excessive or unrealistic, but for me, it’s incredibly real. Even before I came out (to myself or anyone else), I was hanging out with the queer kids at my college. We gravitate toward each other like light towards a black hole, except that the black hole is actually rainbow flags and hugs and acceptance. The message to queer kids is: don’t worry, there’s a place out there where you won’t be alone. We need that message badly.