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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