I finished the audio book of And I Darken the other day, and it was pretty different to my usual reads, but I really loved it!
TL;DR Lada (a female Vlad the Impaler) is strong and feisty while her brother Radu is soft and gentle. They are taken from Wallachia and their father by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and grow up with his son Mehmed, who loves them both fiercely and selfishly. There are secret plots, assassination attempts, and just enough romance to balance all the stabbing!
I hadn’t heard of Kiersten White before And I Darken, but she is a New York Times bestselling author with a hugely popular trilogy, a duology and several standalones. After reading this, I’m definitely adding some of her other books to my wishlist!
And I Darken puts a fascinating spin on the original Vlad the Impaler/Dracula story, and I’m so excited to read the sequel, Now I Rise, which is due out this June! According to Kiersten’s blog, there will be three books in the series (The Conqueror’s Saga).
It’s going to be difficult to review this book without giving much away, as we all know some version of the Dracula story, so I’ll try to keep it brief!
Lada is the firstborn child of the Prince of Wallachia, who initially dismisses her for being female, but as she grows and becomes more feisty and spirited he soon realises that she, rather than her gentler and softer brother, Radu, is the heir he hoped for.
‘If Lada was the spiky green weed that sprouted in the midst of a drought-cracked riverbed, Radu was the delicate, sweet rose that wilted in anything less that the perfect conditions.’
When they are still only young, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire demands that the Prince hand Lada and Radu over to him, as a sort of tithe. They grow up in the Ottoman courts, alongside the Sultan’s youngest son, Mehmed. With two older and stronger brothers, he is a spare to the throne, and is ignored by his father who takes no interest in him. The three soon form a water-tight bond that strengthens as they grow older.
Lada: “If anyone is going to kill you, it will be me. Understand?”
Radu nodded, snuggling into her shoulder. “Will you protect me?
“Until the day I kill you.” She jabbed a finger into his side, where he was most ticklish, and he squealed with pained laughter.’
News soon reaches court that both of Mehmed’s brothers have been killed, and that the Sultan wishes to retire, leaving Mehmed to take the throne. Young, inexperienced and untested, Mehmed does not have his subjects’ respect, so his father decides to come out of retirement until Mehmed is ready.
Years later, the three are in their late teens, and have begun to drift apart. Lada trains with the soldiers and hopes to join them one day, despite being a girl. She is a formidable fighter and is well respected by most of the men – again, despite being a girl.
“She would never be the best Janissary, because she would never be a Janissary. She could never be powerful on her own, because she would always be a woman.”
Radu has become popular among the courtiers due to his natural charm and good looks, and is close with the sons of some of the highest ranking officials. Mehmed has now been groomed for his role as sultan, and as a result has spent a lot of time away from court and his friends, but on his return things change dramatically for all three.
Radu: “You have both been so busy learning tactics and studying battles, you have failed to see the truth of where thrones are won and lost. It is in the gossip, the words and letters passed in dark corners, the shadow alliances and the secret payments. You think I am worthless? I can do things you could never dream of.”
One of the biggest themes throughout And I Darken is power. Lada visualises power as threads strung between people, showing who receives their power from whom. She understands from a young age that as a girl in a man’s world she has no power, so she must take it by force.
“Lada had a sense for power–the fine threads that connected everyone around her, the way those threads could be pulled, tightened, wrapped around someone until they cut off the blood supply.
Or snapped entirely.”
There’s a great scene where Lada is invited to tea by the Sultan’s harem, including Mehmed’s mother, Huma. Huma is not like Lada’s own mother – weak and cowed – she is proud and manipulative, and she advises Lada that women can have power, but they must be willing to sacrifice something in order to gain it.
“So the question becomes, Daughter of the Dragon, what will you sacrifice? What will you let be taken away so that you, too, can have power?”
Huma opted to give up her freedom in order to gain the power granted to the wife of the sultan. She gives Lada another option than violence and aggression, but will Lada take Huma’s advice?
Another big theme in the book is religion. It’s presented in a very open-minded way, from the strongly differing perspectives of Lada and Radu. They are both initially raised as Christians in Wallachia, but the Ottomans are Muslim and Radu soon discovers that Islam speaks to him in a way that Christianity failed to do. This angers Lada, as she refuses to accept any of the customs of the people who stole her from her country of birth, which she refers to as her mother.
Lada: “I love Wallachia. It belongs to me, and I belong to it. It is my country, and it should always be mine, and I hate any king or sultan or god or prophet that proclaims anyone else has any right to it.”
There are also themes of love, family, sexuality (Radu is gay, as are several secondary characters) and of course gender. I am really excited to see how the story develops in the next two books, and how Lada being a female will change the Vlad the Impaler story.
I gave And I Darken 5 stars because it is a really interesting concept, and so well executed. The main characters are all three dimensional, they have flaws and complex personalities that made me love them one minute and hate them the next – sometimes both at once!
There actually isn’t all that much action in the book, it’s definitely character driven, but personally I didn’t feel like that took away from the story. I was fascinated by the dynamic between Lada, Radu and Mehmed, and the historical setting of the Ottoman Empire was well researched and beautifully described. The romance element was down-played, and I wouldn’t describe it as a love triangle so much as a polygon!
I would recommend this book to anyone who loves historical fiction with a twist, fantasy that doesn’t feature magic or mythical creatures, and books with incredible female characters and a healthy dose of diversity.
Have you read And I Darken? What did you think? If you’ve read any of Kiersten’s other books please give me your recs in the comments!
Camp NaNoWriMo goal: 35,000 words of rewrites
Achieved so far: 6,175