Book Review: ‘And I Darken’ by Kiersten White

and i darkenLet her be strong. Let her be sly. She looked over at the princess, fifteen, lovely and delicate as the first spring blossoms. Wilted and broken on the bed. And let her be ugly.

Fierce and dark, as the title suggests, ‘And I Darken’ is quite a departure from the author’s previous work. And while I enjoyed her lighter paranormal fare, I think it’s wonderful that White is stretching her creative muscle and exploring something completely different. Check out our interview with the author, who talks about the inspiration behind the novel and the writing process as a whole.

Now I don’t know much about the history of the Ottoman Empire, or the figure of Vlad the Impaler, but it was fascinating to read about this less-explored (in YA, anyway) period of history – albeit with a significant gender swap. The novel focuses on the siblings Lada Dragwyla and her younger brother Radu, who are taken away from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts as political collateral.

Lada is…a complicated character. You’ll love her and despise her in equal measures. But the author does a great job in showcasing her motivations for her actions. Lada can be cruel to be kind. Cruel because she is overwhelmed with emotion and doesn’t know how to deal with it. Downright cruel, because that’s just part of who she is.

Radu is another interesting one. Frequently bullied as a child, Radu is a source of shame to his father, for failing to embody traditional masculine qualities. He is quiet and gentle, and because of this, ultimately miserable. He grows into his own during his time away from Wallachia, using his charm and quick mind to strategize and spy.

“You have both been so busy learning tactics and studying battles, you have failed to see the truth of where thrones are won and lost. It is in the gossip, the words and letters passed in dark corners, the shadow alliances and the secret payments. You think I am worthless? I can do things you could never dream of.”

Finally, we have Mehmed, third son of the sultan of the empire, who is relegated to useless accessory until he becomes the oldest heir. A beloved companion of both Lada and Radu, he cares deeply for the siblings but is single-minded to his own detriment. Watching his character development, you see the potential for a future tyrant. I’ll be interested to see how he is portrayed in next two books!

The gender-swapping introduces an interesting dynamic to the story – Lada’s struggles to be taken seriously, her issues with aspects of her femininity, the clash of her ambitions with the reality of her biological sex. 15th century women were expected to marry and have children, smile and enjoy it. Lada’s continual source of worry that she will be married off drives her immense efforts to prove herself, at great personal expense.

Perhaps if she had more women in her life, she would not feel so outraged at the physical and social demands of being one.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the depiction of Islam in the novel, which I thought was excellently done. Firstly, it’s largely underrepresented in YA as a whole, and secondly, we all know there’s a climate of fear and hatred toward the religion. White incorporates explanations of the basic tenets, and wonderfully portrays Radu’s peace and sanctity that he finds within it.

“So the question becomes, Daughter of the Dragon, what will you sacrifice? What will you let be taken away so that you, too, can have power?”

The personal politicking in this book is what stood out the most to me. The question of which pieces of yourself you have to sacrifice to achieve a higher goal is something that comes up again and again. The push-pull of a rather contentious sibling relationship is another highlight of the novel – how Lada and Radu grow up, grow together, and grow apart.

A superb offering from Kiersten White.

Rating: 8/10

ARC received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from uncorrected proof and may differ from final publication.

Hannah is a twenty-something born and bred Capetonian who adores reading and reviewing books, and encouraging critical discussion on all things pop culture. Currently a politics graduate student, she spent two years working in digital marketing before deciding she missed the student life. Loves QI, travel, dark chocolate, fantasy & YA books, pilates and sarcasm.