This review contains some minor spoilers for the first novel in The Conqueror’s Saga. This review is also long because I loved this book so much.
One of my minor complaints about And I Darken (the first in the series) was that it got a little long purely because there’s a lot of unfamiliar names, places, and events that I had to first get through in order to get to the story. That was not the case with the second novel. Now I Rise benefits from the world building that was done in the first novel and further expands on locations that had smaller parts in the first novel. It balances character growth with action, creating a thrilling story that had me questioning characters’ motives. It is a a great continuation of a series that is set in a historical context that is real, yet also genderbends a historical figure. It made me more excited about a series that I already loved.
Lada and Radu burst back onto the scene shortly after where And I Darken left them. Radu remains in the Ottoman Empire, and Lada is trying to regain what she believes is rightfully hers: Wallachia. They’ve taken different paths that are still connected to each other, but Radu uses gilded words and Lada uses cold steel. Mehmed remains, but Now I Rise quickly becomes about Lada and Radu. Mehmed takes on a role in the background but occasionally comes back to interact with our main characters. And even when he’s not physically there, both Radu and Lada often think about him. Sometimes he still affects how they act, but gradually that changes.
Shortly into the novel Radu is sent to Constantinople to act as a spy for Mehmed. Although he has quite a bit of worries about going there, he follows Mehmed’s orders because he loves him. In the first novel, Radu learns how to use his skills to further Mehmed and through close proximity, himself. He is very charismatic, and it was interesting to read how he grew into it in And I Darken. This novel finds Radu questioning much of what he believes and who he believes in. Radu is semi-stranded in Constantinople for months. At first, he eagerly awaits a war that he knows is coming, playing his role as defector to the Christians as he secretly plots to bring Constantinople down. The longer he stays in Constantinople, however, the more he questions the motives of Mehmed and what he’s doing.
He had imagined Constantinople, had wanted it for Mehmed. It had been simple and straightforward. But now he knew the true cost of things, the murky horrors of the distance between wanting something and getting it.*
Radu is becoming a part of Constantinople and being accepted by people there, but he knows that he ultimately will betray them. It begins to wear on him. Reading this expanded his character in a new direction that was so raw I was heartbroken for him. While this series does tend to focus more on Lada as the female Vlad, I feel that Radu has the greater emotional response in Now I Rise.
Radu had seen what it took to be great, and he never again wanted to be part of something bigger than himself.*
Radu’s character is really tragic. He lives in a time where loving someone of your same gender is not acceptable. Despite knowing this, Radu can’t change how he feels and it’s really harming his well-being. It’s bad enough when you love someone who doesn’t love you back; it’s horrible when you love someone who can’t and will never love you back. It sets Radu up for hurt (and there’s something that happens that really makes me upset but spoilers), and I’m glad that he finally begins to address this in Now I Rise. It’s not quite where I want it to be, but I have hope for Radu’s romantic prospects in the third novel.
I can’t give a review without talking about Lada. She’s still the strong (anti-)heroine that she was in the first novel, but this time she’s burning and slicing her way across Transylvania and the surrounding countries as she vies for her Wallachian throne. In her mind, and the minds of her men, she is the Prince of Wallachia. The only problem is that she is a woman. Many of the boyars, the Wallachian nobility that traditionally support the vaivode, don’t believe that she deserves it purely because she is a woman. Once again, Lada has to rage against her sex.
She knew now that nothing she could do would ever be enough. Unless she could grow a penis, which did not seem likely. Nor particularly desirable…She had only these sharp men and sharp knives and sharp dreams, and no way to make use of any of them.*
Although Lada is still particularly violent, she also tries to channel Radu. She tries to be reasonable when it means getting allies, even if it makes her grit her teeth or pushes her into more feminine roles. In the first novel, Lada pushed against being a woman so much. She was so full of anger that she hadn’t been born a boy, almost echoing her late father’s sentiments. Everything she is would be prized if she were a boy; as a girl, it’s considered wrong. While those feelings still echo in the second book, I also liked how Lada kind of embraced being a woman. Although she doesn’t fall in to any of the traditional boxes of the time, she realizes that she can make a new type of woman, one who fights for what she believes in and is deserving of the same things that men are given. Reading as Lada connects with women who are similar to her (although sometimes less violent) was really exciting. I liked reading how her beliefs that women were the weaker sex (which is what she is so against) was being challenged by women who had to be strong in order to survive. She begins to realize that it’s not simply black and white. Lada is truly trying to build a new world that is more progressive than it’s been. Of course, this means that she has a lot to come up against.
Both Lada and Radu’s parts are incredibly well written and engaging. Sometimes when a novel is split into two points of view, I find myself enjoying one over the other. This wasn’t the case for Now I Rise. They both kept me interested, and they both had clear plots that whispered of being connected to each other. I think that Lada and Radu will meet again. It will be interesting to see how the siblings react to one another. The last time they saw each other they seemed to be going down different paths, but with the events of Now I Rise, I think they’ll find they have a lot in common once again.
Other than the great characters, the thing that makes this series work is the wonderful setting. It’s a historical novel, so Kiersten White has to follow a certain plot that already exists. Even so, writing a historical novel does require an amount of creativity that not everyone can do well. It’s blending fact with fiction and doing it in a way that is interesting to the reader. It’s revealing a setting that still technically exists, but doing it in a way that illustrates it to the reader. The setting is so real and rich that it makes me want to visit Wallachia, although it exists now as part of Romania.
Another huge part of Now I Rise is the different faiths. Following it, questioning it, trying to understand how and why it causes people to do things–all of that is explored by Radu in Now I Rise. There are two faiths that are focused on in the series, but I feel that it’s done in a way that doesn’t paint one as worse than the other.
It was always jarring to hear the Ottomans referred to as the infidels, since that was what [the Ottomans] called the Christians.*
It addresses the fact that faith drives people, and oftentimes that harms other people. Having Radu on the inside of Constantinople instead of in the camps attacking it was a choice that allowed readers to see more of who he is as a person, and how he grows and changes into something that he wasn’t before while he resided in the Ottoman Empire. It allows him to realize that judging another faith is not simply calling it the infidel faith. Having parallels between the two faiths really focused that point.
Ultimately, Now I Rise is clearly setting up the third book for multiple conflicts and reunions. It’s certainly not a boring second book by any means, because I actually found it to be more engaging than the first novel. I’m really looking forward to seeing where Kiersten White takes Lada and Radu next. I highly, highly recommend this series for readers who like historical fiction done extremely well with characters that are multifacted and continue to grow. This book was amazing and I hope that the next year speeds by. I can’t wait for the third novel!
I received a copy of Now I Rise from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Now I Rise will be published on June 27th.
*Quotes are from an uncorrected advance proof and are subject to change before publication.