Title: And I Darken
Author: Kiersten White
Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction
Page Count: 512
Notable Notables: Feminism, LGBT characters, POC characters
Recommended Readers: Those interested in a slow-build, female Vlad the Impaler retelling
The historical figure Vlad the Impaler and the Dracula legend based off him is one of my favorites, so I was worried about how changing him into a female character would go. (This is purely for selfish reasons as I have quite a crush on Vlad, vampire version mostly but historical figure, too.)
But I’m happy to report that Ladislav “Lada” Dragwlya was an incredible character, and this book was an impressive and intricate historical retelling that’s just getting started.
White’s writing style was particularly refreshing because it never once became flowery or dipped into purple prose to make the events of the novel seem more beautiful or profound than they were. Instead, White’s style is blunt but with an edge you didn’t realize had cut you until you realize the full impact of what you just read is saying:
As the baby latched on with surprising fierceness, the nurse offered her own prayer.
Let her be strong.
Let her be sly.
And let her be ugly.
Lada and her brother, Radu, find themselves given as captives to the Ottoman sultan by their own father as political collateral and spend the novel figuring out how to survive unnoticed and, in Lada’s case, find a way to return to Walachia. Their circumstances become complicated when they meet Mehmed, a son of the sultan, their lives becoming hopelessly entwined with his.
I love character-based novels steeped in politics and plots, but As I Darken wound up being more slow-paced than I anticipated. I thought the first half of the book would be about the Ottoman Courts and the next half would focus on Lada claiming her throne despite being female. In a way, the novel was certainly that, but much less action-based than I imagined it would be, and it didn’t surprise or wow me at any point.
Despite that, the story was still incredibly well-done, the pieces being placed slowly and carefully as it focused on threads of power and relationships, but I wanted to note the drawbacks I had with it that led to my four-star rating.
Let me just say, finally, here’s a sibling-focused story featuring a brother and a sister rather than just two sisters or two brothers. The relationship between Radu and Lada captured perfectly how conflicted one’s feelings for a sibling can be and how despite the ways they may fail or disappoint you, you still feel tied to them in love all the same.
I loved Lada immensely, and I take issue with any reader who calls her “crazy.” She’s thorny, brilliant, and outwardly sticks to her guns even when she’s internally questioning herself. Hers is a fierce desperation to exist as a person with power, not as a woman to marry off and forget about once her use as a bargaining chip for someone else’s power is accomplished. She figures out early how her brothers and best friend, Bogdan, are instantly respected more for being male, and rails against it every day of her life. I’m so proud of her, honestly.
And how important is it to have an ugly female protagonist, one who prides herself in her lack of beauty and her male-like behavior? I even liked how Lada started questioning it concerning her romantic feelings towards Mehmed and the skillsets Radu develops because it isn’t done in a way to make Lada lesser. Rather, Lada wonders if she would have more access to power if she had beauty or less. I liked the scenes between her and other women (Mara, Halima, and Huma) because each of these women faced their circumstances in different ways with different approaches to power, and their fates all turned out so diverse. Lada took note, and Lada will remember.
In contrast, I loved how Radu was far more beautiful/handsome and displayed more feminine qualities than his sister, even before he acknowledged his sexuality. As a boy who was neglected by everyone, he realized his strengths as a man lied in conversation, knowledge, and intrigue, similar to how Huma steers events. Despite these being considered a “woman’s power,” it’s actually closer to how thrones are won and kept, and so Radu becomes a valuable yet underestimated force in the Ottoman Court.
Both Lada and Rudu appear so confident and skilled in the other’s eyes, but their own POV chapters reveal how much they envy each other their strengths and how much they don’t have their lives and heads together. It was just so great to see actual siblings on paper.
“Ugh,” she muttered, tugging his hair. “You are so pretty. Like a delicate butterfly beneath my boot.”
“Ugh, ” he replied, pulling one of her own curls, which were thick and coarse. “You are so mad. Like a rabid hound that needs to be put down.”
White also treated both Christianity and Islam with respect and realistic outlooks. This was a time of crusades and conquering in the name of religion and the one true God, so I liked how Lada viewed religion/Christianity as a tool she didn’t practice herself and how she abhorred Islam only because it belonged to the empire holding them captive.
Contrasting that beautifully was Radu converting to Islam because he found peace and comfort with its teachings and practices that he never felt in Walachia with Christianity. Radu’s conversion drives a bit of a wedge between the siblings, but I loved how this was the one thing Radu wouldn’t budge on for Lada. Radu discovering he is homosexual is another point of contention versus his faith, but he also isn’t the only gay person in the Ottoman Empire or the novel: there’s Lazar, Salih, Nazira, and Fatima. As Lada learned from the women around her, Radu learned from those practicing and hiding their sexuality as they gravitated toward each other for support.
Mehmed was another matter entirely. I didn’t feel that he was as fleshed out as Lada and Radu were, but Mehmed also doesn’t have any POV chapters. Regardless, his influence over both of their lives is unquestionable. It is Mehmed who makes Lada realize that she is becoming a woman, and she loses a bit of her resolve, wrestling with how she enjoys the way Mehmed makes her feel over returning home.
It wasn’t an insta-love situation at all but rather showcased how confusing and reality-shattering developing feelings for someone can be and how difficult they are to navigate without losing yourself in the process. I like how Lada didn’t break whatever they could’ve been off until she had something concrete to sacrifice Mehmed (and Radu) for: her throne and right to rule.
When it comes to female pleasure, Lada didn’t believe that the actual act of sex could be for women, which is why she revels more in the foreplay and the attention that comes beforehand. She always refused to let Mehmed go further than that, not chancing becoming pregnant and losing whatever power she had gained, trapped as his concubine. Which is why I bust out laughing when Lada overheard pretty much about female orgasms and immediately went to Mehmed to demand, “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR WOMEN LATELY?” to know if he’s actually been pleasuring the women in his harem or just getting them pregnant. (Can’t help but notice he never gave her a straight answer…)
Meanwhile, Radu finds himself trapped by his love for Mehmed, claiming that Mehmed is his home. Radu wants to help him rule but lives in agony because his love will not be returned, and it was honestly such sweet agony watching Radu deal with this. Mehmed, meanwhile, loves Lada romantically and loves Radu as his dearest friend—but still performs his duty as sultan with visiting his harem and producing sons, a topic both siblings try desperately to avoid acknowledging.
Personally, I feel like this is the one situation where Mehmed would be totally down having a threesome with both siblings (in this house, we headcanon bisexual Mehmed), but both Lada and Radu are so territorial over even each other’s company, I doubt they would believe that sharing is caring in this case.
Radu and Mehmed had both given her something she could not give herself, had seen her in a way no one else had and no one else ever would. They looked at her, ugly Lada, vicious Lada, and saw something precious. And she looked at them and saw Radu, her brother, her blood, her responsibility, and Mehmed, her equal, the only man great enough to be worthy of her love.
At the end of the day, though, what kept me reading was Lada refusing to succumb to anyone, including her own weaknesses, and Radu’s journey of coming into his own and finding his own strengths. Both of these characters are strong on their own, but they’re stronger together, which makes their separation at the end of the novel–and perhaps the rest of the series–so surprising and painful (but historically accurate). Mehmed is also going to realize how he came to relying on both of their judgments, and I think he’ll have a hard time dealing with it all, Lada’s absence especially.
I’m excited to continue this trilogy. Lada still has an uphill climb to make, and the situation with Mehmed and Radu isn’t much better. Plus, I need to read about all of them pining for each other tragically because I’m just into drama like that.
Plus, I need more zingers like this one:
“On our wedding night,” she said, “I will cut out your tongue and swallow it. Then both tongues that spoke our marriage vows will belong to me, and I will be wed only to myself. You will most likely choke to death on your own blood, which will be unfortunate, but I will be both husband and wife and therefore not a widow to be pitied.”
Go, Lada, go!!!