Ember, $10.99, ISBN 978-0-553-52234-1
Historical Fiction, 2017 (Reissue)
Wow, what a ride! I have heard plenty of good vibes about Kiersten White’s And I Darken, about how violent and savage the heroine is, that I immediately tune out other potential spoilery news. I want to read this book with minimal knowledge, the better for me to tamper my expectations and savor every second. That’s probably a good thing to do, as Ladislav “Lada” Dracul is a bit more down to earth rather than the Mortal Kombat character I’m half-expecting to get here. For a heroine who’s going to be the future Vlad III or Vlad the Impaler, the Dragon of Wallachia, that is.
This is the first book in a series, so it’s an “origins” one, setting up the stage for dramatic events to come. Lada has long been the feral, vicious daughter, even earning the cold favor of her father, while her younger brother Radu – the future Radu the Handsome – has always been frail and hence the target of bullies. Due to political reasons, Lada and her brother end up in the court of Sultan Murad of the Ottaman Empire, held hostage to ensure the good behavior of their father. These two end up the companions and bosom buddies of the Prince Mehmed, the future conqueror of Constantinople, and as the years pass, their lives will become an intertwined sort of mess.
Lada is the brawn, prone to viscera and brute strength, favoring military strength, while Radu slowly learns to use diplomacy and charm to make his way into power.
Mehmed is infatuated with Lada, but Lada is afraid that giving in to him will mean the complete loss of whatever precarious power she has over her own destiny. If she becomes Mehmed’s mistress, then even he will cease to see her as anything but a woman, and that way lies… well, let’s just say that since she was a child, Lada has seen nothing but pain and misery to befall a woman of her time, and she wants nothing to do with the expectations of her sex. Our dear starts out being this very abrasive, confrontational creature, and I have to say, very often I find her far less interesting than Radu, but I can deal with her as I can understand what the author is trying to do with her.
As the story progresses, Lada will learn that there is actually power in being a woman in her position and time, if she knows how to wield it and is willing to pay the price that may come with such power. Therefore, there is a subversive kind of girl power at play here: at the surface, it seems like the story is promoting feminism as girls behaving like men as much as possible, but there is also a stronger, starker kind of undercurrent here – a woman can hold great power despite being denied actual positions of power in a time that is inherently unfair to her, provided that, like men, she is ruthless enough to act, seize, and wield that power. The culmination of this story is Lada having to decide how she wants to wield that power; to, for the first time, seize the opportunity that she has always wanted. The men in her life, Radu and Mehmed, will not be able to hold her back at that moment. Does she dare to forge ahead and carve her own fate, or remain safe but still letting the men in her life having considerably power over her life? Her decision makes me very interested to read the next book.
Radu is an interesting character too, and he is the main character as much as his sister is. This guy starts out battered and broken at the bottom of the power hierarchy, very dependent on Lada to keep him from the worst of the abuse he suffers. But eventually, he discovers that he has the ability to use words to win over various powerful factions in the Sultan’s court, and eventually positions himself as the equivalent of the strategist and spymaster for Mehmed. Along the way, he finds peace in Islam and a home in this land. Of course, this means he becomes somewhat estranged from Lada (she always wants to return to Wallachia), but the distance allows him to discover and be his own person. Oh, and the poor guy is in love with Mehmed. Both he and her sister know that his attraction is doomed to remain unreciprocated, but the poor guy can’t let go of his feelings even if he wants to.
Mind you, history suggests that Radu the Handsome and Mehmed II were lovers (or so a Greek historian reported – and you know how those Greeks love their man-on-man erotica), so let’s see whether the author will follow that route too. If so, let’s keep these books out of the hands of our Turkish friends: they don’t like it when people suggest that their hero Mehmed II swung both ways.
And I Darken is a well-written, gripping story that I can’t put down no matter how much real life tries to make me. The challenges and dilemmas face by the siblings are relatable and often painful to read, and if the author is going to stay as faithful as possible to history even after making Vlad III a girl, well, I can only hope that Lada and Radu find as much happiness as they can in their tumultuous days ahead.
I am sometimes jarred out of the story by the use of modern phrases in a story supposedly set in the 15th century as well as by some tedious trappings of the young adult genre, such as how Radu seems to have boy after boy all fighting to be his bae as if life is tailored after Charli XCX’s Boys. Also, sometimes these characters come to a conclusion or epiphany just like that, and I can only wonder what made them reach to such a point.
Still, no matter. As a series opener, this one drags me screaming into this story. I’ve had a fabulous time, and I really need to read the next book ASAP.