And I Darken is the perfect title for Kiersten White’s novel about Vlad the Impaler’s origins.
The plot (eventually) focuses on machinations for the 15th century Ottoman throne, but at its heart, And I Darken is a character-driven tale that shows how abandonment changes Vlad and the other protagonists.
Oh, and in White’s retelling, Vlad isn’t a man—he’s Lada, a girl who’d rather swing a sword than don a dress.
It’s a compelling mix.
The character development begins almost immediately, as soon as Lada and her brother Radu are old enough to merit their own viewpoints. Lada is fearless and fierce; Radu is timid and trusting. But when their father, the ruler of Wallachia (part of historical Romania), runs afoul of the Ottomans, he sends his children to be political hostages at the sultan’s court.
Lada deals with the betrayal by hardening, training with the Ottoman’s Janissaries (elite soldiers taken as boys from other countries) and turning herself into a weapon. Radu, desperate for the approval and sense of belonging his sister is incapable of providing, converts to Islam and learns the intricacies of palace intrigue. About all the siblings have in common is their blood and their friendship with Mehmed, the sultan’s third son.
Later, this relationship drags Lada and Radu into the Ottoman game of thrones, but the politics always feels secondary to the pair’s individual struggles: Lada’s rebellion against what’s expected of a woman, and Radu’s (quieter) grappling with what’s expected of a man. Both dilemmas feel modern in a way that doesn’t detract from the historical setting. The same goes for the story’s non-traditional love triangle. White also includes just the right amount of inner monologue: enough to let us into Lada and Radu’s mindsets and make us care about what they think, but not so much that the pace drags and we lose interest.
So yeah, I liked this book. Not least because And I Darken is a sweet freaking title. If you enjoy well-written historical fiction, this one’s definitely worth a shot.
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