And I Darken
by Kiersten White
Publication Date: June 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction, YA
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Let her be strong. Let her be sly…And let her be ugly
In And I Darken, Kiersten White expertly retells the story of the historical Vlad III Dracula, (known today as Vlad the Impaler), transforming prince Vlad, son of Vlad II Dracul “the dragon” and ruler of Wallachia, into princess Lada. White plays with gender expectations through her renderings of Lada and her brother Radu, and in doing so engages with contemporary questions surrounding autonomy, marriage, and power within the world of Ottoman Empire in the 15th century.
White’s historical rewriting follows the tough, fiercely independent, often cruel Lada and her brother, the thoughtful and gentle Radu as they are thrust from their home in Walachia and abandoned by their father, the country’s ruler, as hostages in the Ottoman Empire. Lada pushes back against her status as glorified prisoner, longing for and constantly plotting her return to Walachia, whereas Radu finds peace in religion and begins to make himself a home. However, the siblings’ loyalties, to their home and to each other, are tested as they grow closer to Mehmed, the youngest heir to the sultan. In the end, Lada and Radu must decide what sacrifices they are willing to make for Mehmed, for themselves, and for each other in the face of growing political unrest.
I absolutely LOVED this book. The setting and the characters are so richly developed, with subtle growth, believable personalities, and plausible, heartbreaking motivations. It is dark and gritty and I was enthralled from the first pages.
First, the setting. I am always thrilled to read YA and Fantasy books that take us outside historical UK/fantastical UK like country and White does an incredible job dropping the reader into the history and culture of the 15th century Ottoman Empire in. This is historical retelling done right! The world building is detailed and precise, and White skillfully crafts a snippet of a vast empire, weaving a complicated political history into the story of the two Dracul siblings.
The characters, however, are what truly make this book so memorable. The novel begins with Lada and Radu as young children in Walachia, setting up formative events and behavioral patterns that build a strong foundation for the difficult choices they must make. They are unique and actualized and conflicted, and they grow and change while remaining true to the core things we know about them.
Lada, for example, is often cruel and can be frustrating and unlikable at times, but her motivation is understandable and built clearly throughout the views of her childhood we are shown, which makes all the difference. Lada so often unlikeable in a completely understandable way.
Lada is a legitimate badass and she works hard for it, sacrificing her feelings in an attempt to gain some semblance of respect and control. She is constantly struggling to be taken seriously and pushes back against the expectations of marriage, childhood, and docility. Her relationship with herself as a woman and the way she fights against the forms of power that other women attempt to show her are available to her is particularly interesting, as she often feels like her body is betraying her. She perceives power and respect as masculine, physical toughness and cannot bring herself to accept a form that, while it might bring her some happiness and a means of control in other ways, would limit her ability to move freely and claim power in her own right. Through these representations, White enacts a delicate blending of contemporary questions surrounding gender and sexuality into a novel set in the 15th century.
Radu, on the other hand, works in the quiet, subtle spaces of power that Lada rejects. As a child, Radu faced abuse and dismissal from his father and sister, and he is all but ignored. Yet unlike Lada, others find him charming and attractive. Radu wins others over with his easy smile and as he grows up, he learns to find strength in these spaces.
The relationship between Lada and Radu is equally compelling. On the surface, the two battle constantly, Lada is often cruel and yet fiercely protective of Radu while Radu struggles to understand her anger towards him. The two are full of conflicted love for each other that is relentlessly challenged, revived, and thwarted throughout the text.
This is a 5-star read and anyone who likes deep character development and historical grounding (and doesn’t mind a bit of a plot lag to develop these) will love it!