And I Darken
Author: Kiersten White
Release: June 28th 2016
Genre: Fantasy, Alternate History, YA
#1 in the Conquerors Saga
Sequels: Now I Rise (#2), Untitled (#3)
No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over their every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets.
Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, Radu feels that he’s made a true friend—and Lada wonders if she’s finally found someone worthy of her passion.
But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against—and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point.
I must say, I am very impressed with Kiersten White. Ever since I read four novels by her and mostly hated all of them, I admit I haven't held her in the highest regard for a while now. I am glad I did come back for this and gave her another chance though, because this was a glorious piece of art.
What makes this novel so truly striking and unique, in my opinion, are its three main characters and their interwoven dynamics. The heroine, Lada, was ruthless, cruel and savage. And I loved her for it. I always love a well-rounded, merciless protagonist with a cunning mind and sharp wit, especially if she's well-written. And oh, how well-written Lada was. She has soft moments, few and far between they may be, but they're there and they make her such a fascinating character; but then she goes and does something so atrociously horrible. I loved that. To write a compelling character, you have to make them do things the reader may not like, and there were some decisions I really did not agree with at all, and the real skill here is in balancing these things out. You can't make your character TOO unlikable, but also let them have these flaws, they are crucial to a good character. And White struck the perfect balance.
In comparison to Lada, Radu and Mehmed kind of take a backseat here, at least for me because I felt they were nowhere near as irresistible as Lada. But that's saying little, because I still thought Radu's character development was incredible. He went from this weak, useless child who didn't know what to do with himself to a man who was capable of holding his own in every way, who finally found his calling and who made good use of his assets and skills. He was powerful without having to wield a sword like Lada did, and I think that made him a seriously admirable character.
Mehmed was a bit so-so, but I feel like that's mostly due to lack of insight into his character. We only really followed Lada's and Radu's perspective with the third person narrative, which is why sometimes I just could not fathom or understand what was going on in Mehmed's mind, why he did and felt some things. I still liked him as a character, but he was definitely the weakest of them in terms of development and portrayal.
And the relationships, oh boy. I especially loved the truly wonderfully complex sibling relationship between Lada and Radu, because it was brutal and rough, but also realistic in a way, especially considering the world they live in and the people they both are and become throughout the novel. Their shared feelings are deep and complicated, it's hard to tell where love and loyalty end and hate and jealousy begins with these two, and I can totally understand why, simply because they're both in such awful positions with no easy way out. It was a daring step to take for a YA author, because this type of relationship isn't one you see often in this genre, especially not with familial relationships.
Then there's Lada and Mehmed, which I curiously ended up really liking and shipping? I actually cannot give you a single reason as to why they even fell in love to begin with and in all honesty their relationship isn't even that healthy, but White just manages to bring that spark, that chemistry across so well that I couldn't help it. Their relationship was very difficult and complex as well, for very good and understandable reasons and even though the constant back and forth, particularly on Lada's behalf, was a bit annoying sometimes, it still made for a very compelling aspect of the whole book.
Another thing I absolutely loved was the various and vastly different portrayals of strong women in the novel, and how strength can be measured and acquired in a hundred different ways. There's obviously Lada, who is refusing every historical custom and finds her power in wielding a sword and wearing armor, there's Mehmed's mother Huma whose power is being in control and wielding the threads behind the scenes. There's Mara, whose resilience is her strength. And so on, and so on, it was absolutely beautiful and inspiring, and so important. I loved all of it.
Lastly, the world building. The lush, beautiful world building. The writing is descriptive without being smothering, pretty and simplistic at the same time without being too overwhelming. I'll admit that I thought the first ~20% a bit slow and boring, and was a bit taken aback at having to read through their whole childhood in Wallachia because I was expecting to be directly thrust into the Ottoman story without preamble. Still, it added so much detail, and unlike so many other novels, it wasn't unneccessary decoration, but needed information to truly develop and build the foundation of the characters.
Needless to say, I am eagerly awaiting the next novel, especially after that ending, which kind of broke my heart a little bit.