“I will not be ruled” – Lada (Kiersten White, page 120)
After reading rave reviews about And I Darkenthrough the Instagram book community (Bookstagram, as it has been aptly named), I was very excited when I finally got my hands on a copy of And I Darken just a couple of days after its release. And while the book did have a rough start, it eventually recovered and lived up to expectations.
No one expect 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.
And I Darken can be best considered as a historical novel, though from the beginning it is evident that it is a loose interpretation of history, not an accurate retelling. Set in Transylvania during the height of the Ottoman Empire, it can be described as more of an alternate history, as it replaces Prince Vlad the Impaler with fictional Princess Lada the Impaler. And I Darken had a rough start for me, as I initially disliked both Lada and Radu, finding them too extreme in their portrayal. Moreover, the actual plot was slow moving to start, which made the story hard to get into, and made it even harder to relate to the characters.
However, Kiersten White creates such strong, presonable characters with very real, relatable problems and struggles, that it’s hard to continue disliking them as the plot thickens, and you’re drawn in.
- Lada is very “anti-princess” and aims to take care of herself, unusual for that time period. She refuses to wed and learns to fight. Lada is uncompromisingly herself and is not ashamed of it. From infancy she is fierce and overall is a female character to be respected and cherished. Early on she is shown to be brutal, independent and cruel, traits which her father encourages and values. Later on, this behaviour has become all Lada knows and understands, so she uses it as both a shield and a weapon within the Ottoman court, protecting herself and her brother, Radu, and later on, Mehmed, from threats, both perceived and real.
- Radu is the complete opposite of his strong willed and brutal older sister. Quiet, polite and meek, he faces brutality with cunning and politics, taking beatings he later avenges through devilish plots. Lada and Radu wield utterly different forms of power, both defying what was originally expected of them, while trying not to lose themselves in the process. However, at the Ottoman court, Radu quickly submits to the Ottoman ways and religion, showing himself to be easily influenced, forgetting his Wallachian heritage. It is, in this way, that his sexuality which defines him, for throughout the book, Radu struggles with his attraction towards a certain male character, who is most definitely not Wallachian.
- Mehmed is also an intriguing character, who undergoes a significant amount of development from his original introduction. From a young boy, afraid of a rule he is not ready for, to a young man plotting his way to the throne, Mehmed remains uncompromising in his values, and in his love for his friends. Never does he debase himself by killing unnecessarily, or by being cruel, a fact which draws Radu to his side and makes Lada question her hatred towards all Ottomans. Furthermore, he is uncompromising in his goal of conquering Constantinople – while this may be a brutal, unnecessary goal, it also shows strength of character that he is not so easily dissuaded from his dreams.
However, I must say, Lada, Radu and Mehmed are not for everyone. In fact, I’ve read a fair amount of reviews discrediting their characters. Therefore, if you’re looking for an alternate opinion on this novel, I highly suggest checking out Nice Girls Read Books, which has a pretty thorough breakdown of why this book has potential to be disliked!
One thing I’d very much like to discuss, but cannot do without revealing spoilers, is Radu’s sexuality – which is one of the primary reasons I love this book so much. Therefore, if you’ve not read the book, from this point on, I’d recommend ceasing to read this review until you have read the book!
Radu’s sexuality was handled wonderfully. Honestly, I am so impressed by the way White tackled to topic of homosexuality in this book. Far too often nowadays, I feel that authors include LGBTQ2+ characters as a form of tokenism – akin to including characters of colour or racial minorities. White, however, tackled Radu’s sexuality in a refined and tactful manner. His love for Mehmed was so tender and the book really focused on how Radu felt, especially in regards to understanding and coming to terms with his sexuality in an unforgiving world. I was also pleasantly surprised to see a lesbian side character, and to hear mention of other gay/lesbian individuals, indicating that Radu’s predicament was not so unusual as he initially believed and displaying the strength that comes from having a community of individuals who share and support one another.
So if you’re looking for somewhat of a different summer read, And I Darken definitely has something to offer – from action, to historical retelling, to strong female leads and positive LGBTQ2+ representation, this book truly does have it all. White’s portrayal of Lada is especially strong, but Radu and Mehmed hold their own as main characters as well. Overall, this book was fantastic, despite a slow start, and I would definitely recommend!