Part of a new series called The Conqueror’s Saga, And I Darken is the tale of a princess who will not follow the standards of her time. Lada Dragwyla has fought her entire life to be seen by her father. She has to prove that she’s more valuable at his side than married off like other girls of noble families. When she and her brother Radu are abandoned by their father in the Ottoman Courts as a means to keep him in check, Lada vows to never weaken again. Weakness could get them killed in this place where their lineage is just another piece to move around. As they grow up in the Ottoman Courts, both Lada and Radu hone their respective skills, picking up friends and enemies along the way. To survive at all costs, they have to make decisions that could come back to haunt them later. But they know to never look back.
This is a novel that asks “What if Vlad the Impaler was a girl?”, an intriguing premise that made me request a copy. And I Darken is set in Wallachia, now a part of Romania, and the Ottoman Empire. It’s a setting that isn’t often used for young adult novels, and it is done distinctively enough that I saw it very clearly while reading. The setting was a character in its own way. It played a part during different stages of Lada and Radu’s life, and I suspect that it will become increasingly important in the later novels. Lada is Wallachia; it’s in her blood, constantly calling to her. For Radu, the Ottoman Empire is more of a match.
For the most part, And I Darken was a successful novel for me. It had a protagonist who was intentionally not lovable. Lada wasn’t a character who waited around for other people to tell her what to do. She rebelled when people tried to order her to do things. A lot of protagonists in young adult novels are promised to be strong characters but turn out to be weak. This is not the case for Lada. Some of the things she did made me dislike her. However, I had to admire her for doing them. Her reasoning for her actions are presented to the reader and they make complete sense. I knew and understood why she was doing them. Lada was not a character who is promised to be one thing and then becomes another. She was not one of the protagonists who pretend to be strong but inwardly worry about if the male character likes her or not. Lada was brutal and quite unlike most female protagonists I’ve read.
Lada fights against who and what she is for the entire novel. Being a girl in this world means that you are a piece; you’re a means to an end or a way to control another. You are not someone. Lada rebels against this completely and from the first moment she realizes what her “role” as a woman is in this world. She does not want to become some frail thing confined to a bed after childbirth. She does not understand why she–the stronger one compared to her younger brother–is not given the same opportunities. She demands and takes what she wants, completely steamrolling over any conventions that her world has regarding girls. She will not go gently when things don’t work out for her.
Lada has to be brutal because the world around her is brutal. There’s no sugar-coating of how the world around her–and the people in it–want to use her and her brother for their own gains. They need to stay several steps ahead of everyone else in this dangerous political game. It’s dark and gritty, with no softening of the edges. It sometimes boils down to playing the game in the courts of power in order to survive–and hope that you don’t fail. If you do, you may die by the same means you’ve set up for your own political rivals. It doesn’t flinch away from the dark but meets it head on.
The contrast between her and her brother, Radu, was enjoyable. Where Lada is strong and brutal, Radu is more gentle. Lada distrusts everything about their captors, but her brother finds that certain elements of their culture speaks to him. As a gentler soul than Lada, he blossoms under the courts and finds a way to fit in that he never would have been able to find had they stayed in their homeland. I liked that the novel divided the chapters between these two distinct characters. The author did a good job showing how their relationship changed throughout the years and how their desires drifted apart and together in equal measure.
I was pretty excited to read this novel and am really glad that I got to read and review it before publication. I think that readers will love Lada, rough as she is, because she doesn’t back down from her priorities. They only change as she changes. And I Darken is an interesting start to a new series with political intrigue and where everyone is reaching for their own goals. I’m looking forward to seeing where the characters of Kiersten White go next. Lada is a character who questions and refuses to be put into the female role in her society. She fights it constantly. I recommend And I Darken for readers who want a strong female protagonist like Lada; someone who questions her role and has a power that often dwarfs that of men’s. And I Darken will also be good for those who like reading about a world where politics are like a game of chess and one wrong move doesn’t lose a piece. You could possibly lose your life.
I received a copy of And I Darken from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. And I Darken will be available for purchase on June 28th, 2016.