Title: And I Darken (The Conqueror's Saga #1)
Author: Kiersten White
Genre(s): Young Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction, Religion, Elements of LGBTQA+, Romance
Gisselle's Rating: 4.5/5
DISCLAIMER: This review may contain spoilers for And I Darken.
During my undergrad studies, one of the books I enjoyed reading the most in my curriculum was Bram Stoker's Dracula, and it was especially compelling to learn that it had been inspired by a true figure in history: Vladimir the Impaler. Yet, I did not understand the intricacies of the stories involving Vladimir, or exactly what he was famous for in history. This novel, though a fictional retelling with many creative liberties taken, depicts that era and its characters, and Kiersten White does a fantastic job at bringing these historical figures back to life in such a raw and human way.
White's And I Darken is the first installment in a series called The Conqueror's Saga, a trilogy which recounts a fictional retelling of Vladimir the Impaler, Mehmed the Conqueror, and other historical figureheads of the Ottoman Empire. While this is a retelling of historical accounts of the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople, and other events, there are quite a few liberties that White takes in the telling of her story. For one, White makes the decision to change Vladimir the Impaler into Ladaslav the Impaler, a daughter (rather than son) of Wallachia. There are also adjustments made to the timeline in which certain events unfolded in history to better fit White's narrative, and as there isn't true historical documentation of exact conversations or encounters that these characters may have had with one another, White focuses on possible motivations that would have impacted their actions taken during their lives. Ultimately, it is important to remember that while this story has its roots set in true events, it is a fictional piece.
Lada Dragwlya is an incredibly powerful and vicious lead, unapologetic in her quest to prove herself as worthy as any man when it comes to her capabilities. Her character had me enamored from the beginning, from her birth at the genesis of the novel to her acquirement of Wallachia at the end. While she is the "female Vladimir the Impaler," that is generally where her femininity ends. Incredibly strong and utterly ruthless, Lada is a fierce protagonist that has spent all her life fighting: against her cruel older brother, against Ottomans that threaten the lives of her and her younger brother Radu, but most of all, against the expectations of the patriarchy that seeks to suppress women into the roles of wives, mothers, and nothing more. Lada is not a feminine woman, and she refuses to linger on the idea of succumbing to the expectations of the men and women around her, choosing to forcefully carve her own path and destiny. One of my favorite quotes in this novel is when Lada is in the process of being married off, stating to her betrothed:
“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.”
What. On. Earth is this brilliantly violent and dark paragraph?
But it is this proclamation, along with many other lines delivered by Lada in the text, that showcase exactly who she is. She is not a damsel in distress in need of anyone, much less a man, to save her or fight her battles; however, she is also not a kind-hearted person, unwilling to bend to providing compassion or obedience. White does a phenomenal job at depicting Lada as an antiheroine and how there are many elements to Lada's character that sum up a hugely imperfect protagonist: Lada is selfish, wild, and cruel to all those who dare to confront her. Even with characters that she hosts a semblance of loyalty or love towards - Radu and Mehmed - she shields her inner emotion with an outward harshness. She should be someone readers cannot connect with, someone utterly unlikable, but White provides so much insight into Lada's thoughts and motivations that you can't help but enjoy her character, even if you don't agree with her actions or beliefs.
The same was done for the character of Radu, or Radu the Handsome, as history knows him. If I didn't know Vladimir the Impaler's history, I certainly didn't know that of his younger brother. Initially, I was not sure how to feel about Radu; described as beautiful but fragile, and crying in every other scene, I was not sure what he was going to bring to the book. However, White (and Radu) quelled those reservations as Radu's tactical brilliance and scheming deviousness became apparent and grew, and suddenly both siblings - Lada and Radu - were fighters in their own right that I thoroughly delighted in observing. Radu also battles with another conflict that hits close to home for me: the discovery of his latent homosexuality. It was heartbreaking to follow Radu's thoughts about this revelation, especially when in moments alone as when he mourns his love toward Mehmed, a man who would never love him how he wants him to. It was horrific and beautiful, and my heart ached for gentle Radu through this book.
Mehmed the Conqueror is another historical figure that White resurrects in this tale. Mehmed's main objectives from his introduction was securing his spot as Sultan, establishing rule over the Ottoman Empire, and conquering Constantinople. His story is closely entangled with that of Lada and Radu, and they are the main trio of protagonists in this series. Everything about this group of characters - Lada's ferocity, Radu's compassion, Mehmed's powerful lead, and all the experiences the three had together - was fantastic to read.
Yet, for all the well-written character analyses and insights, there is a small criticism that I have for White in And I Darken. White partially falls into the trap that opened itself up to her when she changed Vladimir into Ladaslav: the insertion of a love story between Lada and Mehmed. It added to the tension of the story and was well-written, fraught with dangerous desire and conflicting emotions, but at the same time, it felt like it was only present because White changed the sex of Vladimir the Impaler. This is somewhat rectified by Lada's handling of the relations that she and Mehmed share. She does not swoon over Mehmed or forget her sense of self by the story's end. At one point, she outright refuses to concede to the meaning of entering the Sultan's hareem, which (by custom) would mean that she would belong to the Sultan and would not be permitted to leave. Yet, she repeatedly disallows anyone aside from herself and her home country to lay claim to her. I thought it was a well-handled affair that ended incredibly bittersweet for the first installment.
Religion is an inescapable part of this series, as it is tightly interwoven in the story that White is attempting to retell. Authors can toe a line when writing about religion: you want to remain respectful of different perspectives and don't wish to intrude your own opinion, but you also want to be informative about the history of said religion. I think White does a great job at presenting the religion of Islam in an unbiased manner, but I admit that it is not my religion to fully make that determination about. I do believe that White, at the very least, tries to shift between Lada and Radu's perspectives so as to ensure that each character (not White herself) can present differing opinions about how Islam was presented, or why it may have been challenged.
This book was incredibly blunt and brutal to read, but in the best way possible. Despite the fact that White's audience was likely aimed toward young adults, she does not hold back in the depicting the harsh reality of this time period. That being said, while fictional retellings of history is not the genre I typically seek out, I really enjoyed this book and its cruel complexities, character insights, and violent human emotion.