Now I Rise by Kiersten White // a brutal, bloodthirsty sequel

Today on the blog, I review another of my most anticipated reads of the year! You can check out my review of the opener to this trilogy (And I Darken) here, or see a full list of my anticipated YA reads of 2017 here. Warning: this review may contain mild spoilers for both books!

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Author(s): Kiersten White
Publisher: Corgi/PRH
Publication date: 6th July 2017
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (The Conquerors’ Saga #2)
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All quotes are taken from this copy and may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Lada has only ever wanted one thing: the Wallachian throne. But foes stand in her way at every turn. She has no allies. No influence. Even her small band of soldiers is dwindling. 

After failing to reclaim Wallachia, Lada is out to punish anyone who dares to cross her path. She storms the countryside with her men, including her childhood friend Bogdan, looking for a way in, but brute force isn’t getting her what she wants. She needs another tactic. But her silver-tongued brother, Radu, remains in the Ottoman Empire and thinking of Mehmed – now the sultan – brings little comfort to her stony heart.

Unbeknownst to Lada, Mehmed has sent Radu to Constantinople. He wants control of the city, and for that he needs a spy. Radu envies his sister’s fierce self-possession, but for the first time in his life, his tangled loyalties lead him to reject her requests of him. He must succeed in Constantinople if he is to ever to make the young ruler look upon him with the same longing Radu does. 

The Dracul siblings must decide: how much they are prepared to sacrifice for power? How much are they willing to risk for love? And as nations quake and fall around them, will either goal be what they imagined? 

A ruthless, bloodthirsty, fifteenth-century what-might-have-been saga about a genderbent Vlad the Impaler may be an unlikely choice of subject for young adult fiction, but it’s certainly an eye-catching one. After the success of trilogy opener And I Darken – it went straight to number four on the NYT bestseller list – Kiersten White is back for more of Lada Dracul’s vicious clambering toward the throne. Sweeping and dark, it’s a sequel that commands the reader’s attention.

One does not simply walk into power in Wallachia, and the ferocious Lada has come up against foes which have her bouncing around medieval Eastern Europe like a particularly murderous ping-pong ball. She finds an unexpected ally in the formidable John Hunyadi. The relationship between Lada and Hunyadi – the closest Lada may ever come to a ‘positive’ father figure, and even then only because he’s a celebrated warrior whom she grudgingly helped out of a skirmish – is a fantastic addition to the book. Lada’s still not quite as heartless as she thinks is, and watching her wrestle with newly-complicated decisions was riveting.

This series is, however, told in dual perspective. Radu fits into noblemen’s courts with a patience and diplomacy Lada could never achieve, and their split to opposite fringes of the Ottoman empire makes for a narrative in which he can really test his wings. Unfortunately, this doesn’t preclude him from making poor choices (the Dracul siblings, really, specialise in those). His blind belief that Mehmed will suddenly return his feelings if only he does the sultan’s every bidding can get a little repetitive and tiresome, but the story as a whole is rich and engaging. It’s rare that both halves of an interwoven narrative are equally compelling. I was so absorbed by each section I kept forgetting there was a different storyline coming up, and after I got over the momentary surprise at a switch, it’d happen all over again.

Resolute, clear-headed Nazira was given welcome prominence, while newcomer Daciana quickly makes her presence known. Her relationship with a rather bemused Stefan is an effective and balancing subplot. Long-suffering soldiers Nicolae and Bogdan (poor Bogdan, Lada is treating him much the same way as Mehmed treats Radu) also return. Mehmed himself takes up less of the narrative but still manages to make himself less likeable in that time, while the holdovers of a ‘romance’ between Mehmed and Lada seem rather redundant when it’s clear neither of them are willing to love anyone the way they love power. Or themselves.

A busy, action-packed plot is driven by Lada’s ambition in the lawless wilds of Wallachia and Radu’s activities as a double agent in Constantinople. It was this latter backdrop – much of the book takes place during the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 – that made the book stand out for me. It’s an immersive, brilliantly-conjured plunge into a superstitious, crumbling city. I’d like to see more YA set there. White’s writing style is closer to functional than illustrative, with some unnecessary intrusions from modern terms (e.g. ‘block’ for a street) but it does the trick. There are even flashes of flair (‘The moon did not take sides. But the blood-washed expanse of the Byzantine full moon seemed to promise otherwise’, ‘the teeth of the castle and the people it devoured’) and even, very occasionally, humour (‘the sultan is the son of a donkey!’) (donkeys get a very bad rap in this book, tbh). That said, it is at times too brutal, unnecessarily grim, and it definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It reads like the middle of a trilogy, with plenty yet to be resolved. I would’ve liked even more detail and history – though it is even clearer here than in And I Darken that this is reimagined historical fiction, and it remains to be seen if White will throw in some unpredictable twists for the finale.

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Now I Rise is compelling, effective and demanding alternate history with a vicious female lead, increasingly developed characterisation and a rich choice of setting. Sweeping and unputdownable.

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A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston // a retelling in need of a bit more pace

252441111Author: E.K. Johnston
Publisher: Macmillan Children’s/Disney-Hyperion
Publication date: 20 October 2015
Category: YA
Genre(s): magical realism, fantasy, retellings
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

This lush reimagining of A Thousand and One Nights is as enigmatic as it is evocative. It weaves out of Scheherazade’s well-known origins a different tale to the one we usually hear. Not wishing to lose anyone else to the monstrous Lo-Melkhiin, its heroine decides to take her sister’s place as his next bride so that she may save her life. Her kingdom is trapped in a nightmare which can only be ended with hope, courage and dreams of a kingdom peaceful once more, where each is free to choose their own future. 

A Thousand Nights tells the story of a girl who weaves whimsical tales not just for herself but for all those she has left behind, and the love in this book is that of sisters, families and their people. Shrouded with bewildering illusion, spilling over with myth, and crowned by magic, its blend of genres – fantasy, adventure, magical realism, pseudo-historical fiction – creates a shimmering and surreal quality: every word is carefully chosen, every page a step further into a spell. It has a stunning cover, too: a luxurious swathe of deep purple, spun with gold, pink and blue.

Even more surreal is the idea that most of the book’s cast are not given names. Much of our heroine’s family is referred to only be their relation to one another, and readers may be put off by the lack of identity and individuality involved in their characterisation. Even the heroine of the story – resourceful, self-sacrificing, brave and finding herself wielding an eerie, strange kind of magic in the face of oncoming wrath and war – never names herself, and we are left with only an imprint, an afterimage, of the person she is striving to be. It takes a lot of getting used to, and takes away a lot of her agency. It’s hard to put a protagonist on your list of favourites when she’s not given a name. The vagueness of the characters and the book’s slow pacing made it difficult to imagine them or relate – but I liked its focus on stories, particularly those of women, which have suffered the silence of centuries. A Thousand Nights makes a magnificent case for the idea that just because we don’t know a heroine’s name doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell her story.

A Thousand Nights will sweep readers into a world of desert sands and strange magic – but it takes its time. Lavish imagery and constant metaphors are characteristic of a distinctive writing style which is at its best beautiful, but at its worst cloying. It verges on purple prose and it’s not the mostly immediately engaging style; it certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. A dramatic finale is well-earned, but the rest of the book is slow and easy to become disinterested in. The plot is meandering, occasionally dull, and, perhaps due to the characterisation, lacks the ability to keep you reading. For me, there was always just something off about it, the absence of that indefinable ingredient which takes books from ordinary to extraordinary. The cover is probably its most memorable feature. For a more action-packed alternative, try Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton or for more recognisable mythology, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi.

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Lush  and lyrical, A Thousand Nights is a story of the nameless, of the unknown heroine, of very real people who have faded into history, and very real acts of bravery and adventure which have been lost to time. Delicate and well-spun as a tapestry, it’s vagueness and slow pace are, however, major drawbacks.

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And I Darken by Kiersten White // ambitious, enthralling alternate history

25324111Author: Kiersten White
Publisher: Corgi Children’s/Delacorte
Publication date: 7 July 2016
Category: YA
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.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

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:

(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.

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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.

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