Series: The Conqueror's Saga #1
Published by Delacorte Press on June 28, 2016
Genres: YA, YA Historical
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, 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.
Diversity Rating: 4 – This Is Our World
Racial-Ethnic: 5 (Most of the cast is Muslim once we get to the Ottoman Empire; Lada and Radu are Slavic)
QUILTBAG: 3 (Radu is gay; his arranged marriage enables a lesbian couple to life happily and safely)
Intersectionality: 3 (if I remember correctly, Radu’s sexuality and religion don’t come into conflict with one another)
Kiersten White’s debut novel Paranormalcy was one of the first books I read once I started reviewing and I loved it then, but White’s novels have failed to impress me since. Then And I Darken started gathering all sorts of praise from major outlets and even people who disliked White’s previous books like I did. With so many like-minded people saying her latest was very different from her earlier works, of course I’d pay attention! I’ll add my voice to the chorus: And I Darken is much darker, features a brutal, unapologetic heroine, and is just plain good.
Lada is vicious, angry, and basically everything girls aren’t supposed to be. Therefore, I love her! Plus every time someone complains about her being unlikable or angry, I like to think she wins another battle. She comes close to being a Strong Female Character with no complexity, but the little girl beneath that viciousness shines through on occasion. After she kills someone for the first time, she struggles with what she’s done; even as she acknowledges what a weakness Radu is for her, Lada is determined to protect him because he’s family. Lada walks that fine line of characterization and will strike some readers as a one-note character obsessed with ruling her mother Wallachia, but she works for me.
In contrast to her masculinity, her brother Radu is more feminine and excels in intrigue instead of battle. This reversal of gender dynamics was more than a little pleasant! Being gay, Radu’s softness once again comes close to making him stereotypical but is avoided because White breathes such life into his character. He’s never stuck in the box of Feminine Gay Boy; he’s skilled at trading in information and charm and happens to be gay. He can be just as vicious as Lada, but he works differently. Your mileage will vary on his characterization moreso than Lada’s, admittedly.
The first 200 pages or so are spent on Lada and Radu’s childhood growing up in Wallachia and eventually being sent to the Ottoman Empire with the intent of using them to keep their father in line. This long stretch can drag at times, but it’s all vital information and the book as a whole is well-paced. Even with just twenty-four hours in which to read the book, I breezed through the entire thing without having to remind myself I needed to finish the book the same day.
Sadly, some of the book’s major events and deaths lack the necessary impact and it’s almost ridiculous how well a twelve-year-old boy and a thirteen-year-old girl do political intrigue. We can’t conquer middle school politics at that age, let alone international politics! But different time, raised to do such things, etc.
What I wanted most was to see Lada have more meaningful relationships/friendships with women or girls her age. I love how murderous and terrible she is, but there are more ways to do feminism than a girl making herself one of the boys and being tough. The closest female relationships she has are with Tohin, Huma, and Mara, who are more akin to people Lada learns lessons like “how to have power as a woman in a patriarchal empire” from.
I got my copy from the local library and could have the book checked out for two weeks, but I delayed on reading it until I had just one day left before it was due back. That forced me to read the entirety of And I Darken in a single day and I couldn’t have chosen a more binge-able book to procrastinate on reading. I’m not desperate for its upcoming sequel Now I Rise, but I’ll be on the lookout for when a copy appears at the library. If you thought you White could only produce sweet and/or sterilized books, she’s out to prove you wrong.