Books: And I Darken

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So good and so not what I expected. I’ll admit that I judged And I Darken by its (beautiful) cover and pegged it to be some sort of light fantasy, but I was mistaken. Although the book sometimes feels like fantasy with the way the story unravels, it is very much rooted in history and the Ottoman Empire, the only “fantasy” twist being that the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler is now a female, our main character, Lada Dragwlya. And I Darken is a stunning and well-written alternate version of history, and, as promised in the title, the book gets dark and gritty and is hardly “light” fantasy.

And I Darken follows the lives of two Dracul siblings, Lada and Radu, as they grow up in Wallachia in the shadow of their cruel father, and later are essentially sold to the Ottoman Empire as a guarantee of peace between the two states. The two eventually befriend Mehmed, the son of the sultan, which lands the three of them in a complicated triangle of relationships involving romance, friendship, and family. In the meantime, the three must also navigate the complicated politics of the court and the Ottoman Empire, where there is danger around every corner and loyalties are uncertain.

 

Our main girl Lada is the star of the show here. She is a “nasty woman” in the best sense of the word, one who demands respect, but also manages to demand the reader’s sympathy. She is such a strong character, but also flawed. She’s proud, ruthless, and unforgiving, a difficult person to like, but one who still managed to steal my heart. She attempts to resist change, clinging through all the years to a fierce loyalty toward Wallachia, and the difficult lessons she learned in childhood of not showing weakness and never allowing herself to love. But at the same time, the ways in which she changes and develops across the story and years is so clear, most evidently in her relationships with the two men in her life–her brother and Mehmed, their friend and love interest–and the way in which she even allows herself to have a relationship with them. She is fascinating, defiant, and isn’t afraid to make difficult decisions for a vision of some greater purpose.

Radu, Lada’s brother, is an equally as interesting character. He starts out as an innocent youth who is eventually hardened by bullying and his sister’s harsh treatment of him, but also never loses that desire to love and be loved by his sister. While Lada could win any fight with her ferocity, Radu is much more subtle and adept at navigating politics, easily ingratiating himself with the members of the court. While Lada is extremely independent and seems to embrace her solitary existence with the Ottomans, constantly holding herself apart and reminding herself (and everyone else) that the Ottoman Empire is not home for her, Radu has constantly sought to find a home to belong to, and eventually finds one in Islam and the Ottoman Empire.

Both siblings have a fierce love for Mehmed, but also each other, and the novel explores the different kinds of love that are possible: love for mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, lovers, homes, and countries. The love triangle in And I Darken is extremely compelling because all three members of the triangle are connected to each other (unlike others in which a single love interest links the other two), and the biggest struggle is that of each sibling’s love for Mehmed against their love for each other.

But I’d say that while love is a big theme of the novel, romance is not. It exists but is periphery to the greater questions of relationships and political intrigue. I really liked that romance doesn’t exist for the sake of romance, but instead is simply a component of some of the relationships, and the relationships are part of a greater context of personal struggle and politics.

My only previous experience with reading Kiersten White’s novels was nearly seven years ago with Paranormalcy, a somewhat cliche and classic paranormal teen romance. And I Darken could not be more different. It is dark and gritty, researched and well-written. I highly anticipate the sequel and await to see where our characters will go and how closely Lada’s story will follow history.

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Books: Blood for Blood

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(The following may contain spoilers for Wolf by Wolf.)

Blood for Blood was one of my most highly-anticipated sequels on my to-read list. I really enjoyed Wolf by Wolf, the first in this duology, and wanted to see more exploration of Yael as a character and her relationships with the people around her in this novel. Like with Wolf by Wolf, I found Blood for Blood to be extremely readable, in the sense that I was able to read it pretty quickly and never got bored or felt like the plot dragged. However, it lacked a certain spark so while I enjoyed it, I didn’t love the book as much as I wanted to.

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Books: Beartown

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Out of all the books I’ve read by Fredrik Backman so far (and I’ve read all of them except for A Man Called Ove), Beartown is definitely the best. The subject matter is darker than Backman’s previous books, dealing with topics are difficult, but also extremely relevant to the real world, and there’s a certain realism to it that makes it more impactful and stand out more than his other novels.

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Books: Strange the Dreamer

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(Any potential spoilers will be blacked out. Highlight at your own risk!)

Strange the Dreamer is another fantastic fantasy novel from Laini Taylor, full of the same beautiful prose and familiar themes as her Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy, but this time with a new cast of characters and a different, colorful world.

In this world, humans have two hearts and two bodily fluids that are the force of life–blood and spirit. Lazlo Strange is an orphan from the kingdom of Zosma, a librarian by trade and a dreamer in spirit. He has long been obsessed with Weep, or what he calls the Unseen City, a place that disappeared two centuries ago and exists only as a fairytale in the minds of most people. But one day, the mythical Tizerkane warriors of Weep appear in Zosma, and Lazlo Strange finds that his dreams are very much rooted in reality as he grows closer to unlocking the mysteries of Weep.

It took me two books to fall in love with Laini Taylor’s previous trilogy, but I was immediately drawn to this one. Daughter of Smoke & Bone reminded me a bit of an anime, but Strange the Dreamer reminds me of a fairytale, with a fantastical, dream-like quality to the storytelling and writing that fits the title. Part of what immediately drew me to Lazlo as a character is his love for books and storytelling–give a reader a book about a reader and she will immediately fall in love. But also because so much of the novel is focused on Lazlo and his story and his adventure. He views the world in terms of stories, myths, and legends just waiting to be written, and we are immersed into this worldview of his.

There is a hint of instalove here, but that doesn’t appear until much later in the novel, and the relationship is so beautiful and so sweet that I can forgive the instalove. It doesn’t appear early enough to annoy me, and instead we get to spend that extra time really getting to know our cast of characters and the history of Weep and the world around them.

Exploring the relationship between “good” and “evil” and the two sides of every story is a theme that Taylor seems to be constantly exploring in her novels. There is also a recurring theme of exploring one’s own identity, and a questioning of what constitutes humanity. These themes all appear in this world and allow the novel to transcend fantasy and look at issues that also exist in reality.

What I found particularly interesting is how Strange the Dreamer looks at the dynamic between two groups of beings who have a long history of prejudice, power imbalance, and violence between them, who are both “human” in many ways but have also done terrible things that are inhumane. The individuals in these two groups are very much the same on the inside: they both have two hearts that pump blood and spirit, both feel emotion and have relationships and want to live, but their main dividing feature is the color of their skin, and with that color comes so much history and prejudice and hatred. Seem familiar? The exploration of this dynamic is most obvious when Lazlo comes into his power and finds that he has become blue, and the people around him–who have gotten to know him so well–are unable to see past the new color of his skin.

Strange the Dreamer is a must-read for lovers of Laini Taylor and/or a good fantasy. It’s a beautiful story on its own, but the ending will leave you hungering for more.

Books: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

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My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

Fredrik Backman does it again. Unlike most people, my introduction to Fredrik Backman was his novel Britt-Marie Was Here (and not A Man Called Ove), mainly because that was what was available when I was looking for books to read. With My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Backman gives us another beautiful, feel-good novel that explores human relationships.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is narrated by Elsa, an extremely astute seven-year-old who is bullied at school for being different and very close with her (slightly crazy) grandmother. Her grandmother is the one who introduces her to the fairytale world of the Land-of-Almost-Awake and all the stories of the heroes and characters within that fairytale world. When Elsa’s grandmother dies, she entrusts Elsa with a grand adventure of giving letters to the people around her. These letters are the grandmother’s way of saying sorry, and through them, Elsa learns a little more about the secret life of her grandmother as well as the people around her.

Although this novel is narrated by a child, it’s hardly a children’s book thematically and content-wise. But regardless of how intelligent Elsa is, she is still a child, and that fact, along with her grandmother’s fairytales, adds a simplicity and purity to the novel and narration. The stories and characters are complex, but can also be distilled into simple fairytales.

I love how Backman tells a story. The novel begins as just a tale of a girl and her crazy grandmother living their life, along with the fairytales that the crazy grandmother fabricates, but gradually develops into something more, looking at their family history and family dynamics, and eventually encompassing the larger family of their neighbors in their building. One of my favorite parts of the novel is how the fairytales bleed into reality in a way that isn’t magical realism, but approaches it in the way that Elsa views and interprets these connections. Is the wurse just a big dog or is it really a wurse? We will never know.

It was also really interesting reading this novel after Britt-Marie Was Here, because Britt-Marie is one of the many supporting characters here, and is at first characterized as an antagonist, especially from Elsa’s perspective. The Britt-Marie of this novel is very different from Britt-Marie Was Here, mainly because the latter’s story begins where this novel ends, and is the story of Britt-Marie’s transformation. It was interesting reading this novel and gaining a different perspective on Britt-Marie, while already knowing and having sympathized with her in Britt-Marie Was Here.

Already, I see a certain formula to the way that Backman writes and structures his stories, but it works so I won’t complain. They might be a bit formulaic, but the characters, relationships, and stories themselves are complex and feel real.

Books: Afterworlds

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Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Scott Westerfeld was one of the first YA authors I ever read with his Uglies series in middle school, and one of my favorite authors growing up. I loved what he did with Uglies and what he did with Leviathan. Which is why I had high hopes for Afterworlds, in which he tackles the YA genre itself, but I was a bit disappointed.

Containing two novels, one which is the “real” one about teenage writer Darcy Patel who just signed a huge two-book contract with a publishing company and is now moving to New York, and another that is the novel Darcy wrote, also titled Afterworlds, which follows protagonist Lizzie Scofield after she survives a terrorist attack and discovers the ability to see the dead. The concept of the book is meta, as it’s about the YA world itself–readers, writers, and publishers–and having just read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (by Gabrielle Zevin, a great book that I sadly won’t be fully reviewing here), I had high expectations for meta novels about the world of novels and novel-writing.

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