Sunday, July 17, 2016
Review: And I Darken by Kiersten White
Title: And I Darken (The Conquerors Saga, #1)
Author: Kiersten White
Rating: 4 Stars
I've never disliked White's novels. I thought her Paranormalcy trilogy was unique in defying the kick-ass heroine trend by presenting a protagonist who cared about her appearance, dresses, and the color pink. The plot itself never stood out, but it wasn't a BAD debut. Her more recent endeavor, Illusions of Fate, proved that she could write a well-developed fantasy and I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed it. But all of those novels had some distinct characteristics that were classic White. In comparison, And I Darken feels as if it was written by someone else entirely. Needless to say, I am thoroughly impressed by just how far White has come in her writing career and this book--this book!--is absolutely stunning.
In truth, And I Darken is a simple story. It is a historical fiction novel set during the time of the Ottoman Empire. Lada, the second legitimate child born to Vlad Dracul and his only daughter, loves her country Wallachia. Growing up alongside her younger brother Radu, Lada idolizes her father and does everything she can to be indispensable to him. It is Lada, not Radu, who learns to fight and hold her own. It is Lada who rides like a man and swears like a sailor. Radu, gentle and sweet with the face of an angel, grows up in the shadow of his older sister, ignored by his father and bullied by Lada who tries to toughen him up in a world where he sobs for every difficulty. Theirs is an interesting relationship for Radu and Lada love each other very much but the way in which they express that love is defeated by one another. When the two siblings are roughly thirteen, they travel to the capital of the Ottoman Empire and are kept there as collateral, their lives dependent on their father obeying the sultan. While Radu embraces his new home, turning to Islam and finding his place in a way he never found before, Lada never forgets Wallachia and swears she will return, no matter the cost.
And I Darken alternates between Lada and Radu's third person PoV from their birth roughly to the age of thirteen. Their childhood relationships with each other, their father, their friends and Wallachia itself are important to understanding these two protagonists and their vastly different natures. Once they arrive in Edirne, Lada and Radu begin to change over the course of the next three years into people they can barely recognize. Radu learns to fight, not with his hands and fists but with his cunning. His handsome face is trusting and allows him to enter circles that Lada cannot, making him indispensable as a spy. Of the two, it is Radu who understands human nature; who can watch and learn from body language the truth of what is being said. Lada, meanwhile, continues her studies, both educationally and physically, training day and night. The evolving relationship between these two siblings broke my heart time and time again because there is a great deal and love and affection between them but there are also misunderstandings--a pattern that anyone with siblings will understand (I know I did).
What I love most about Lada and Radu, though, is that they don't take on traditional gender-roles. In fact, you could argue that Lada is more of a man than Radu because of her brute strength and Radu uses his appearance to his advantage in a way that Lada perhaps should have learnt. Watching Lada, especially, navigate the different types of power structures that her gender can take on--whether it be the power that comes from being a woman in the harem or that of a servant girl rising the ranks--she is shocked and surprised to learn that she can use her body and men to her advantage instead of constantly trying to imitate them. There's also a fascinating discussion, here, of privilege--of the fact that Radu can be soft and gentle but is still afforded an education and can chose to marry whomever he wishes because he is a man. Had Lada acted the way he does, she would not have been given the education she possesses and, what's more, she would have been married off at the first opportunity. It's a really subtle, but important, message of gender roles that White imbibes throughout this narrative and I must applaud her for it.
I cannot lie--there is a love triangle to be found within these pages--but before you run away from this novel, let me tell you that I absolutely loved this love triangle. In a masochistic kind of way because it hurt, but it also hurt so good! I've been waiting for YA to get off its heteronormative high horse and embrace love triangles where not all members are necessarily straight and nor do all members put their love above all else. And that's exactly what we get here. Lada and Radu befriend Mehmed, the third in line for the throne, and their friendship grows and develops into something much more. But it's so much more than a simple romance. It's an affection that changes Lada and Radu's relationship and, further, it makes Lada question what she truly wants from life. Mehmed, as a sultan, will own a harem and have many wives--a concept that Lada rejects entirely. There are so many intricacies to the relationship between these three--their friendship and romance and reliance on one another for Mehmed trusts few others the way he trusts these two siblings--and I love that their story arc is intertwined with politics and passion, equally.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect, though, about this novel is its discussion of Islam. Radu embraces Islam and eventually converts, an action that Lada, who has little love in her heart for God, condemns. But White writes about Islam in a positive light, never preaching but rather teaching a few of the basic principles and how they bring Radu and Mehmed peace. It's a bold move, especially in a time period that is fraught with anti-Muslim sentiment, but she couldn't have done justice to the Ottoman Empire without writing about Islam. Moreover, the Ottoman Empire spans many different nations and I enjoyed getting to meet characters from all parts of the world with allegiances that didn't always lie with the Ottoman Empire or the sultan himself. White's world-building in this historical fiction piece is well-researched and flawless. I don't know how accurate it truly is, but it certainly felt extremely authentic.
I'm curious to see how this narrative progresses and am terrified for the future of these characters. White has made me care about Lada, Radu, and Mehmed immensely and to see them get pieces of what they've always wanted is going to be an interesting journey. Lada's story arc, especially, is inspirational and touches so close to home for it is the journey of a girl who is struggling to find her place in a world of men. For me, the only downfall of this novel is that I didn't love Mehmed with the passion that Lada and Radu did. I understood why they loved him, but I didn't share their sentiments and that distance made it slightly difficult for me to root for Mehmed, in this narrative. But perhaps I am not meant to cheer on the sultan who has nearly everything. Lada and Radu, the two royal siblings of Wallachia who, against all odds, are thriving in the Ottoman Empire, are my heroine and hero. I will follow them to the ends of the earth.