I recently finished author Kiersten White’s latest novel, And I Darken, and I’m not quite sure if I liked it or not. It was really well written, the plot was alright, and the characters were intriguing, but then there are certain aspects of the book that weren’t exactly my taste. The story takes place in several old kingdoms in Eastern Europe, notably Wallachia and the Ottoman Empire. It follows the tale of Lada and Radu, the children of Vlad Dracul and heirs to the Wallachian throne.
From the beginning, it’s established that Lada is this really ugly, really bloodthirsty and slightly psychotic child. She’s constantly causing trouble, she resorts to using her fists and teeth to get her way, and she’s her father’s favorite. Radu, her brother, is much more angelic in nature and in looks: he’s the handsome, golden-haired-golden-hearted and constantly terrorized younger brother. The basic plotline is that Lada and Radu are given away to the Ottomans by their father, in exchange for I think, keeping Vlad on the Wallachian throne as a figurehead. Lada, as she grows older, schemes to get it back, but struggles between going after her throne or giving up and settling down besides Mehmed, the heir to the Ottoman empire and the only boy who Lada feels is equal to her.
So what I liked about the book: Lada is an unforgiving force of vengeance. She will do almost anything to get her way. Most heroines in YA fiction can try going for this route but end up looking whiny or ignorant, but Lada is constantly faced with the fact that she is a girl in a world of men, and for once we have a heroine who isn’t seductive and beautiful and who has men constantly falling over her feet. We have this very angry, very bloodthirsty, uprooted empress who will stab and slaughter and maim her way to the top. It really is a villain’s backstory. I don’t really know if Lada’s going to end up being the good guy at the end of all of this, but then again, I don’t know if there really are any good guys in this book.
I also liked the fact that one of Lada’s biggest hardships is the fact that she’s a girl. It’s a little tragic, because no matter how terrifying she is, her problems always boil down to the fact that she’s a girl. She befriends the Janissaries and fights better than any of them– but is still molested by one of her crew because “she’s a girl,” and she realizes that, hey, no matter what I do, I’m never going to be a part of this crew because I’m a girl. So she does something even better and she takes over their group, becoming their leader. Also, she kills the guy that groped her– that scene was both expected and unexpected, because I thought Lada would get her revenge but I didn’t realize that she would murder Ian, the offender. She kills him out in the woods and then casually mentions to Mehmed that hey, I left a body somewhere out there, deal with it for me.
There aren’t any love triangles in this book, really, except Radu does try to mess with Lada and Mehmed’s relationship at one point, I think. Of course, the romance is a bit screwed up, but everything in this book is a bit screwed up.
What I don’t like about this book: Mehmed, Radu, and some of the filler stuff. I’ll talk about Radu first. He’s so pathetic compared to Lada, and most of his role in the novel is as this self-pitying mass of sadness. He wants Lada to love him, he wants Mehmed to love him, he just wants someone to love him. And at first, it’s understandable. Then it’s annoying. By the end of the book you just want Radu gone for good. The first half is Radu trying to gain Lada’s favor and the second half is Radu trying his best to keep Mehmed alive and also, surprise, he’s gay and deeply in love with Mehmed, who is the epitome of straightness. I guess he was just kind of a predictable character. He does manage to find Nazira, a lesbian, and marry her so that they’re not societal outcasts, but it makes you wonder: does Radu have a honing beacon for queer people? Because he has this friend, too, just a random friend from the courts, who ends up making out with the guy in his palace, and it’s just a really strange and confusing scene.
The one thing I do like about Radu is the fact that he’s very manipulative: he knows how angelic and innocent he is and how to wrap people around his finger, and he does it well. I wish there was more focus on that, or that it was written well. There’s a part where he convinces Mehmed’s father not to kill Lada, but it a flimsy and obvious attempt at changing the king’s mind when I hoped he’d do something subtle. A long-con. But I guess that’s kind of hard to do.
Mehmed just annoyed me because he’s Lada’s love interest and Lada really doesn’t need a love interest. His entire existence is just, “I love you Lada, stay with me in the Ottoman Empire and we can be happy together,” and it makes me mad. For one thing, Mehmed has this whole horde of concubine that he regularly sees, and he has two children already. At one point in the book, he leaves the country, comes back, Lada’s excited to see him but also nervous, he goes to do the do with a concubine and then he comes to meet Lada, and then they later have their first kiss, and then he does the do with another concubine, and Lada figures all of this out and is heartbroken. And Mehmed refers to it as his “duty” as a king. Now, I understand that kings in the Ottoman empire always had their concubines, but I still think that he was a very selfish character. He’s also incredibly foolhardy, a trait that’s exhibited several times: when he tries to rule the kingdom as a child, when Lada and Radu are afraid to tell him that they saved his life and he can become the king later, when he’s more established, etc. I just didn’t like this guy at all. He’s a waste of time, Lada, let it go.
Lastly, there was a lot of the book that was just random things happening to Lada and Radu, like Radu discovering his religion and Lada fighting Janissaries– there were so many chapters of Lada fighting Janissaries– and while it’s always nice to have character development, it got very boring in the end. I kind of skimmed through those parts and moved on to the main plot line because it got a little repetitive. Lada fighting, Lada remembering that she’s a girl, Lada getting mad, Lada murdering someone. Radu sneaking around the palace, Radu thinking about Mehmed, Radu thinking about Nazira, Radu being torn between Islam and his love for Lada.
I was a bit relieved when the book ended, to be honest. It got to the point where I was just like “Lada go take your throne and forget about these guys,” and she did, so that made me happy. The final chapter is Lada standing over Wallachia with her Janissaries and the newly reintroduced Brogan, her childhood friend who was taken away but has come back. She’s going to take back her kingdom, so I hope that it gets a bit more interesting in the next book although I probably won’t continue this series.