I will admit, when I started this book I felt quite conflicted. I love me some historical fiction. But, a gender-swapped retelling of Vlad the Impaler’s life? Vlad Dracula, for those unfamiliar, was the ruler of Wallachia (now Romania) in the mid-1400’s at three different times. It was a time of great political and religious turmoil in eastern Europe. Vlad Dracula is known famously for impaling his enemies of stakes and leaving them to suffer a slow and painful death. Yes, Dracula. The same man rumored to be the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
If you know me, you I don’t like violence. I don’t like gore. But I was piqued to read about such a strong character represented as a woman. I struggled with a few other things in the beginning, but in the end, White brought me around with And I Darken. I adore Ladislav “Lada” Dragwula and her story.
Her spine was steel. Her heart was armor. Her eyes were fire.
And I Darken covers the life of Lada and Radu Dracul from their birth to around age 16-18; Radu being the real-life younger brother of Vlad. Lada doesn’t want to be married off to gain her terrible father more power and glory. She quickly becomes vicious, focusing on learning all she can about the world and how to fight. Unfortunately, she and Radu are traded to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire as collateral to ensure their father, Prince of Wallachia, does not betray the Ottomans. They grow up mostly forgotten in the palace of the Sultan and come to befriend his youngest, and least important, son, Mehmed II. We get to watch the growth of the Ottomans as these three develop a deep friendship during one of the most tumultuous times in history.
“I think of you list a sister,” he said. “Like a billiant, violent, occasionally terrifying sister that I would follow to the end of the earth, in part because I respected her so much and in part because I feared what she would do to me if I refused.”
She nodded. “I would do awful things.”
First, let me get out of the way that I have incredibly mixed feelings about the first third of this novel. While I am intrigued with the true start to Lada and Radu’s lives, the pacing felt wrong. It took me a while to get into the storyline, even though I was intrigued by both the Dragwula siblings. I strongly believe part of this had to do with me listening to the audiobook. While Fiona Hardingham is a decent narrator, she is the only narrator for this text. And I Darken alternates between Lada and Radu’s perspectives; I would very much have benefitted from a second, male, narrator! Their perspectives don’t consistently change at the chapter beginnings, they often change during the chapters, so I didn’t always pick up on the narration change. Hardingham did little to change her tone when other characters were speaking, as well.
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?
After a few hours of listening, I did get used to Hardingham’s narration, though I never solidly figured out when narrative voices changed. That said, I don’t put this entirely on Hardingham as the narrator. In the beginning, it’s obvious that White is still solidifying the difference between Lada and Radu’s narrative voices. Over time, it got easier and easier to differentiate between them. Particularly as the two grow up and become more individual.
If Lada was the spiky green weed that sprouted in the midst of a drought-cracked riverbed, Radu was the delicate, sweet rose that wilted in anything less than perfect conditions.
These characters are brilliant. Lada and Radu are true foils to each other. Strong, powerful, angry, unapologetic Lada coupled with kind, passionate, spiritual, cunning Radu. Their relationship is more complicated than it has any right to be, and I ADORE that aspect. This is heightened to the reader by being exposed to both Lada and Radu’s internal monologue when we switch narrators. It’s heart-breaking to watch both siblings make decisions they believe are best for the other. Both siblings love each other dearly, and often their way to show love in the cut-throat world of the Turkish court is a survival mechanism which will challenge the familial bonds they have. Being so different from each other they also struggle to communicate well together. They are the epitome of a love-hate sibling relationship. White’s writing of Lada and Radu’s perspectives are so complicated and perfect. One Mehmed is thrown into the mix… well, let’s just say that if you love character studies, this is a book for you to pick up.
Belief if not weakness. Faith is the greatest strength we can have.
The setting, eastern Europe in the 1400s, is a complicated one. Politics and religion reign supreme. It’s obvious that White did her research when it comes to this story. I only knew a little about Vlad the Impaler before picking up And I Darken. Once I was a few dozen pages in, I knew I needed to learn more. Let me just tell you: White barely scratches the surface of the complex Ottoman Empire politics Lada and Radu are embroiled within. Much of the complex machinations of politics and religion are subtle in this novel. However, as Radu discovers a passion for Islam and Mehmed II finally ascends the throne both these topics become more overt. Suddenly, Lada and Radu are thrust into court life. Where Radu’s soft-spoken and amiable nature lends itself well to court intrigues, Lada pursues her passion for violence and conquest by training Mehmed’s personal guards.
But there are many ways to be powerful. There is a power in stillness. There is a power in watching, waiting, saying the right thing at the right time to the right person. There is power in being a woman — oh yes, power in these bodies you aze upon with derision.
White’s pacing has been criticized as too slow throughout the novel, but I disagree. Yes, the start was a bit of a challenge. But, with the complex nature of politics and religion, the pacing felt perfect for me once I got into it. Before Lada and Radu are embroiled in the Ottoman’s court directly, they are merely trying to figure out who they are as “prisoners” in the Ottoman Court. Growing up is hard enough when you are a teenager. It’s worse when you are the children of a rebellious Voivode of a Christian nation who are being raised by the enemy’s Islamic court as collateral so your father doesn’t betray a treaty. Which, obviously, he does. Watching Lada and Radu come into their own and make their own place in this court takes time.
They are less than mud. You do not get angry at the mud for clinging to your shoe. You wipe it off and never look at it again.
I think the pacing is absolutely perfect. Once Lada and Radu find their place, the pacing increases overall, yes. But still, life isn’t a constant stream of action-packed events! Between historical moments, there is downtime. Precious, beautiful downtime where we get to explore the inner-workings of both Dragwula siblings. Through these slower moments I see life more accurately reflected. Plus, it’s obvious to me that White will be separating these seemingly inseparable siblings in future novels, so these moments are critical now.
“On our wedding night,” she said, ” I will cut out your tongue and swallow it. Then both tongues that spoke our marriage vows will belong to me, and I will be wed only to myself. You will most likely choke to death on your own blood, which will be unfortunately, but I will be both husband and wife and therefore not a widow to be pitied.”
I really enjoyed reading And I Darken but it can be quite intense. Lada isn’t just violent. She’s cruel, cold-hearted, vicious, and perhaps a little crazy. Knowing the history of Vlad the Impaler, I am a bit anxious to see where this story goes. It’s hard to imagine Lada turning into this violent mad woman. But, then again, isn’t that the point? I will certainly be continuing this series in the future. However, I’ll give myself some breathing room before picking up the next book. It’s a lot to take in from a single novel and I have a feeling Now I Rise will be even more intense. Regardless, I highly recommend this novel to anyone who loves history or character studies. It’s brilliant.
What do you think?
- Have you read And I Darken? What are your thoughts on the novel?
- I couldn’t choose from all the great quotes in this book. Which are your favorites?
- What other gender-swapped retellings do you recommend? Which ones should we avoid?
- Do you enjoy historical fiction? What are some of your favorite historical fiction novels?