So I read this book nearly a month ago but am only now getting around to writing a review, because I have literally spent all my free time knitting a SEKRIT PROJECT because I want to give it to my friend Amanda, who has been away and out of contact for a month. Project is almost done, and so now I can resume my regular reading and reviewing, just in time for summer! However, my memories of this book have of course dulled with time, so this review will not be as detailed as my reviews often are.
And I Darken is that interesting form of historical fiction where the author takes a lesser-explored historical figure and takes certain liberties to create a fascinating alternative history, if you will, that is fun if not entirely accurate. In this case, Kiersten White has reimagined Vlad Dracul, aka Vlad “the Impaler” as Lada Dragwlya, a young woman fiercely determined to seize control of her own destiny—at least one day. Sent to the heart of the Ottoman Empire as a hostage to her father’s good behaviour, Lada and her brother, Radu, find themselves the unlikely friends and allies of the sultan’s heir, Mehmed. As they grow older, their father eventually assumes they’re dead, and when Mehmed accedes to the throne, Lada and Radu are in a position to help him against his enemies. Except … he should be their enemy, right? Or is there a love triangle? It’s a mess, in the best possible sense.
What drew me to this book, other than the fantastic cover art of course and the intriguing title, is the promise implicit in both: this is a story about someone losing themselves to their darker impulse. Originally, before I read the cover copy more closely, I had thought this was about some type of fantasy protagonist morphing into an antagonist. Heel turns are so compelling when done well! I don’t think this quite lived up to my expectations in that sense, but there was still a lot here that I liked.
For example, I liked the ambivalence when it comes to the romantic attraction between Lada and Mehmed. I’m done with books pushing a male and female lead together just because. I like that Lada acknowledges the attraction Mehmed has, and I like how Radu also feels attracted to Mehmed and the tension that results. It all feels very complex and messy and real, which I always appreciate, but which I doubly appreciate in a young adult book.
I also enjoyed the characterization of both Lada and Radu. They are very distinct siblings. Lada can certainly be dark and pragmatic in her approach to winning, whereas Radu is craftier and, as she might put it, softer. Throughout the book, White puts them into situations where their loyalty to one another is tested, where their wits are tested … it’s great. And they both have a lot of agency, despite technically being hostages. They both make important, life-altering choices, both for themselves and also for Mehmed. They don’t start the book with much power, but they build up their own power bases over time. Radu steps out of Lada’s shadow, becomes his own person, finds his own way. And Lada eventually starts to develop plans of her own, begins to channel her darker impulses into scarily productive directions.
Put it simply (and somewhat vaguely, sorry), this is an exciting read. It’s a setting I’m not used to, both in terms of time and place, and the characters are great. I enjoyed the arc of the plot, both the pacing and the actual story. I’ll be honest: I’m not sure if I would read a sequel (Goodreads seems to indicate this is the first in a series, don’t know if that’s accurate). And I Darken didn’t stand out as being incredibly entertaining or sublime, and I’m not all that invested in Lada or Radu or Mehmed’s stories. Nevertheless, this is a good, standalone story on its own, one that will have you thinking and caring about its trio of main characters.