Author: Kiersten White
Genre: historical fiction
Series: The Conqueror's Saga #1
Published: expected June 28 2016
Source: publishers via NetGalley
No one expects a princess to be brutal.
And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over their every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets.
Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, who’s expected to rule a nation, Radu feels that he’s made a true friend—and Lada wonders if she’s finally found someone worthy of her passion.
But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against—and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point.
From New York Times bestselling author Kiersten White comes the first book in a dark, sweeping new series in which heads will roll, bodies will be impaled . . . and hearts will be broken.
This was gooood. Dense with detail, rife with intrigue, and peopled by morally ambiguous, developed characters -- I can easily see why the comparisons to Game of Thrones are being used for And I Darken's publicity push. If you're a reader drawn to stories like Game of Thrones for its complex politics, deliberate social maneuvering, and outright plotting, And I Darken is going to be a great fit for that type of reader. However, it's also very much more in the vein of historical fiction than fantasy, so if you're looking for magic systems and/or any other Dragon besides the leader of Wallachia, you won't find them in these almost five hundred pages.
Veteran author Kiersten White has carefully reimagined the story of the infamous Vlad the Impaler here, but with her own fresh spin on his life. In her alternate version of history, Vlad is now Lada, but has lost none of his famous menace, bloodthirst, or drive for power as a woman. Lada is not a typical heroine for YA but she is well-rendered, complexly-drawn, and very memorable . Lada Dragwyla lives her life as a competition, and often a deadly one; her need to not only succeed but be the best is a key motivator from early in the narrative. She's angry and violent, selfish and power-hungry; a whirlwind of sharp words and sharper knives. But White is smart, and takes care to make Lada more than her darker impulses. She isn't likeable and she doesn't even care to be, but she is strong, dynamic, and proactive in her own future.
Lada's life was uncertain and unsafe from the moment of her birth. First, she was a girl-child at the mercy of a tyrant father with an un-involved mother who fled when both her children were young, and then, she is subject to the unlikely mercies of the Ottoman Empire, especially the sultan Murad and his son Mehmed. As Lada's life entwines with the culture, religion, and influence of her enemy over her long years as a political hostage, her life and general world-view becomes less absolute in nature, less black-and-white. Her unusual circumstances and tattered loyalties -- a daughter of an enemy and traitor of the Turks but freer among them than she ever would have been at home in Wallachia, kept from her ancestral rights but allowed the rarity of an education, etc. etc. -- make the choices Lada must make even more difficult but meaningful by the end of And I Darken.
The surrounding people of Lada's life in And I Darken are a mostly well-drawn lot and make for a well-rounded, (generally) historically accurate, and happily diverse cast of characters. The complicated intersecting relationships between nearly all of the characters in this book are deftly woven. Mehmed the heir of the empire and destined conqueror of Constantinople, and Radu, Lada's brother, are her closest companions and the most developed characters after her. The interplay between Lada and Radu is complex and ever-evolving over the course of the book, but that inconstant feel is authentic given Lada's sullen, withdrawn nature and Radu's more sunny disposition and need for love. Both of them, plus Mehmed, bring something unexpected to the table and to the overall chemistry of the group. The tangled loyalties amongst the three of them make for strong, related secondary plots without needing the story itself to become over-dramatic or feel saccharine. It's a finely-tuned dance, but White plays it well.
And I Darken is brutal, dark, and original; it's a great example of how to write an alternate version of history. It's layered and dense story, but that makes for a rewarding read. This is the first in a new series so I wasn't exactly surprised that novel cut off the narrative when it chose, but it did rob the ending of any kind of real resolution. It's a stopgap ending, one writtten with the clear intention to lead readers right into the next novel but it makes And I Darken's ending feel rather abrupt. That ending, combined with a slight pacing issue around in the middle of the novel, are the only reasons I had that kept this from a full five-star rating. An excellent series debut, I cannot wait to see how White envisions the next, sure to be bloody, stage in Lada's life.