“Your mother is Wallachia.”
The young royals Ladislav and Radu Dragwlya are sold from their homeland of Wallachia into the heart of the 15th century Ottoman Empire. Lada never stops dreaming of her country, but Radu finds a new home in Islam and in the friendship of Mehmed, son of the Sultan. But even as prince Mehmed works his way into both Lada’s and Radu’s hearts, he dreams of ruling and even expanding his father’s empire over more lands like Wallachia. As the three friends grow up together, their very different paths and desires strain the bonds of love.
YA Historical, published 2016 by Delacorte Press.
And I Darken focuses primarily on the desires and nuanced relationships of the three main characters. But within this context, the book also explores the period politics.
“If we were not pushing, fighting, claiming what is ours and challenging what is not yet ours, others would be doing it to us. It is the way of the world. You can be the aggressor, you can fight against Crusaders on their own land, or you can stay at home and wait for them to come to you. And they would come. They would come with fire, with disease, with swords and blood and death. Weakness is an irresistible lure.”
It’s a simplified, intensely character-driven Game of Thrones, Ottoman royal teen edition. Except…this really isn’t fantasy. It’s historical fiction with a twist: Vlad the Impaler is a girl.
What I Liked :
(1) The characters. The perfectly mapped, clear desire lines of the two narrators, Lada and Radu, relentlessly drew me through the pages; this is their shared Bildungsroman. But the characterization continues far beyond just them. The author writes all the characters with care, including Mehmed, Lada’s hilarious cohort of Janissary soldiers and even minor female characters of the harem.
I love how different women characters explore the power dynamics available to them, especially Lada, the female version of Vlad the Impaler. She’s so careful as she weighs her options [highlight to read spoiler: of ruling her own country, or co-ruling the empire that conquered her country in the first place. Mara’s defeat of the harem system seems to inspire Lada’s rejection of “the woman card.”].
Lada’s chapters give me almost everything I wanted from this book. They show off the Ottoman landscape, politics and battle-tactics. Lada considers herself a freedom fighter, and she professes her patriotism well, in an exchange with prince Mehmed:
“I would sooner see my country burned than see it improved under Ottoman rule. Not everywhere needs to be remade in your image. If we were not so busy constantly defending our borders and being trespassed by other nations’ armies, we would be able to care for our own!”
My favorite part of Radu’s chapters is his devotion to Islam and the devotion of other characters who led him to it.
(2) The prose works overtime to bring each character and setting to life. For example, Radu wishes he could see the prince, as they march to one of the crusades, but…:
“But Murad’s and Mehmed’s forces were on different ends of the procession, separating Radu and Mehmed by a full day’s march. The sheer logistics of moving this many men and this much equipment was staggering.”
They’re in the same war party, but they’re separated by a full day’s march?! That is staggering! It really brings home the enormous size of these battles.
What I Disliked :
While the love triangle is both unique and well-written, involving sibling rivalry and themes of patriotism vs. love, it does steal some of the focus from the politics and war, especially at the end. The tension ratios are thus:
35% love triangle, mostly thanks to Radu’s chapters; 65% war and medieval secret service.
This is actually a great ratio, for YA; but while I enjoyed some of the romantic scenes, angsty drama does get old. I preferred Lada’s scenes because she’s constantly plotting some exhibition of her battle skills or saving Mehmed from assassination. I wanted to know more about her study of war strategy. I wanted to spend more real time with her crew of Janissaries.
I wanted to hear less of Radu’s whining.
Basically, I wanted this to be “Bernard Cornwell writes the Ottoman Empire.” I got about 70% of that, and it was awesome. But the rest consisted of historical romance + teen angst – hot sex.
The Ending :
Overall, the book doesn’t finish as strongly as the first 370 pgs predict. The ending feels sloppier than the carefully-plotted beginning and middle—the protagonists “discover” the antagonist’s grand plan with vague guesswork; plot points are suddenly explained in brief dialogues, instead of experienced; the prose slackens with lazy physical telling. It feels a little like the author tired of revisions or ran out of time for them.
Thankfully, a great plot twist saves the book from a so-so climax. I also love the final scene [highlight to read spoiler: at the Wallachian border. Even though the ending is bittersweet and totally reminds me of Gone With the Wind, I cheered when Lada and her men returned to their homeland. It’s irritating that she and Mehmed can’t just work something out, like making Lada be a warrior queen and keeping their relationship. Couldn’t they build an alliance, but still remain separate countries? I’m sure that’s completely historical untenable, but this isfiction! Haha. That would have been a cooler ending, imo. Just sayin’.].
Perfection for fans of YA fiction. In fact, if you like YA at all, I’ll almost guarantee you’ll like this book. Fans of Bernard Cornwell’s historical action/adventure may have a more lukewarm response because neither Lada nor Radu do a lot of fighting. Fans of historical romance might really enjoy the book, though, if they don’t mind the lack of bedsport 😉 I will definitely recommend this book to some teens (in fact, I already have), despite the annoyances of teen angst.
After all, teens are living through it. I’m sure it’s more interesting to them.