Author: Kiersten White
Publisher: Corgi Children’s/Delacorte
Publication date: 7 July 2016
Genre: alternate history, historical fiction
Series or standalone?: Series
Source: I was kindly sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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No one expects a princess to be brutal.
In the perilous courts of fifteenth century Europe, there’s only one person Lada Dragwyla can rely on: herself. Abandoned by their father and used as pawns in a distant conflict, Lada and her brother Radu know their new home in the Ottoman empire is more prison than palace. Survival, let alone revenge, appears a slim possibility – but then Lada is no ordinary princess.
Lada has a thirst for power, but first she must find a way out of danger and back to the throne she believes is rightfully hers. A skilled warrior and a sharp tactician, even friendship with the sultan’s son, Mehmed, cannot quell Lada’s dreams of home – or her ruthless heart. Soon, however, Lada will find that the tangle of intrigue and suspicion which surrounds her is more complicated than she thinks.
A sweeping, elaborate alternate history with a ferocious cast, And I Darken is Kiersten White’s most ambitious project yet. I’m a fan of The Chaos of Stars, her entertaining, sometimes gorgeously written tale of starcrossed love, sunny San Diego and mythological sass. It’s a Stephanie Perkins meets Rick Riordan standalone with a great heroine. Also, when I reviewed it this happened:
— Kiersten White (@kierstenwhite) 14 March 2015
(I JUST REALLY LIKE BOOKS OKAY AND SOMETIMES THIS MAKES VERY WORDY AND FULL OF FEELS also I’m doing my best to make this review one that, while enjoyable, will not provoke sobbing??)
YA is full of retellings, and still the premise behind And I Darken could make you do a double-take: it’s the reimagined what-might-have-been story of a genderbent Vlad the Impaler. It’s an idea most would never imagine as YA. It almost shouldn’t work – but somehow, it does. The writing style is detailed but familiar, weaving strong plot, page-turning intrigue and an interesting cultures into a novel which is both busy and clearly just the beginning of an epic saga. Throw in twists, turns, betrayals, lush backdrops and a well-written central trio, and this is enthralling historical fantasy.
It’s rare that a writer’s work matches up so fervently to their premise. To pull off its demanding hook, And I Darken has to commit to the possibilities of exploring alternate history. Kiersten White doesn’t underestimate her audience, but doesn’t assume they’ll invest in the idea either, and the result is bold but careful storytelling. By the end, you’ve forgotten Lada is supposed to be anyone but herself.
Lada is vicious, audacious, and prepared to do whatever it takes to save her own skin. She’s angry, blunt and spirited. I wrote that The Chaos of Stars’ Isadora is the kind of person you’d want on your side in a fight, but Lada is a completely different kettle of fish. She’s the person you’d want to be as far away from as possible in a fight, because she’s probably there to beat you. She’s brutal, though perhaps not quite as heartless as she thinks she is. She longs to see her childhood friend Bogdan again, has her curiosity piqued by new acquaintance Mehmed, and while she treats her brother Radu with the long-suffering sighs of someone fed up of her charge falling over and needing her to right them again, she does love him. Radu is the sun to her shadow, a welcome narrative relief who reveals secrets of his own. Mehmed is young, just finding his way around power, and may find that crossing Lada is a mistake not many would be brave enough to make.
There is a lack of positive relationships between Lada and other women, at least initially. Lada’s mother is written off almost immediately and the women of the Ottoman harem meet with her derision. White seems to notice this about a third of the way in, however, and while the book stops short of having Lada form deep, lasting female friendships, there are important female characters: power-hungry Huma; savvy, cynical Mara; bouncy, optimistic Halima; beautiful, coy Nazira. There are LGBTQ+ characters, several of whom I’d like to see more of in the sequels (which look set to be darker than this opener, but there’ll have to be happiness in there somewhere…)
The pacing is slow and while the first half is solid, the second half meanders in spite of action sequences. There are so many subplots they seem to merge together, hazy and hard to untangle. The jam-packed secondary cast can be difficult to keep up with and as the book tends to jump from place to place, I would’ve liked more vivid description to conjure the many scene changes. Fortunately, the book’s satisfying, unusual take on history was more than enough to keep me reading.
And I Darken is fantastic historical fiction. Compelling, detailed and full of drama, it’s a challenging and unusual read with a ferocious heroine and an accomplished narrative voice. I’d love to see more YA take on ideas as ambitious as this. One of Kiersten White’s best books yet.