Book Review: Bright We Burn, by Kiersten White
“Without Radu to gently push her in new directions, she was turning into the most brutal version possible of herself.”
The quote above is both the culmination and problem with Bright We Burn, Kiersten White’s final book in her trilogy about Vlad the Impaler (if Vlad were a girl named Lada).
Lada has grown truly ruthless now, willing to kill thousands—and earn her nickname by displaying their bodies on stakes—to cement her claim to the throne of Wallachia and free it from vassalage to the Ottoman throne. This is in keeping with her character, but unfortunately so is the personal vendetta Lada wages at the same time against Mehmed, the Ottoman ruler. Their tortured love results in even more bloodshed and makes them both hard to like by the end.
As a counterpoint, White presents Radu, Lada’s brother, as an example of what can happen when a smart, capable person seeks love instead of power. He doesn’t become a legend like Lada or achieve Mehmed’s lasting influence, but he also comes closer to finding peace than his childhood playmates. It’s a nice thought, and Radu is easily my favorite of the three. I wonder if he was White’s as well. At one point, when he finally reconciles being gay with being devout, she has him say this: “I believe that God is merciful and great and beyond our comprehension. And Nazira [Radu’s wife for appearance’s sake] always told me she feels closest to God when she feels love. I think she is right. In a way, love is the highest expression of faith—in ourselves, in others, in the world. I can expand my faith to allow myself happiness in this life, and trust in God’s love and mercy after this life.” I liked this thought too.
Yet even though Radu gets nearly as many point-of-view chapters as his sister, the story revolves around her. Lada’s evolution from captive to rebel to ruler remains the draw, and it’s why I picked up the series in the first place—“A female Vlad the Impaler” is a heck of a tagline. So does it work? I thought so through the first two books, but I’m less sold after finishing the third. White tries to make Lada sympathetic by having her upend the Wallachian social structure, empowering peasants on the basis of merit rather than birth. I’m not sure how accurate this is. But if the real Vlad was in fact a populist, and the series was meant in part to suggest how he’s been misunderstood—and why he was willing to be so brutal—casting him as a woman complicates that narrative. Lada is ultimately fighting to take her place in a man’s world; her historical counterpart already had one.
Bright We Burn also suffers from a weak ending, with the last several decades of Lada’s life crammed into a few chapters. But I’m still glad I finished it. White is a talented writer, and Lada a character worth following.
I just wish I’d liked her as much as her brother.
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