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.