Series: The Conquerors Saga #1
Published by Delacorte Press on June 28th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult, LGBTQ+
No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over their every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets.
Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, Radu feels that he’s made a true friend—and Lada wonders if she’s finally found someone worthy of her passion.
But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against—and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point.
“I cannot afford to lose you, too”
“You cannot lose something you do not own. Take me with you”
This book was everything I never knew I wanted.
It’s perhaps important for me to note that this book cannot strictly be considered “Fantasy”. There is no magic and it doesn’t even take place in a different world from our own. Instead, it’s an alternate history retelling, set in Eastern Europe during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. It is based on history, but not historically accurate. I say this, because if you go into it expecting a fast-paced, magic-filled world, you will be disappointed. It reads more like a YA historical fiction, than fantasy. Kiersten White took a real historical figure, Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia, and turned history on its head. What if this man, who has a reputation for cruelty and found pleasure in torturing and killing, was a girl? The premise is intriguing to say the least, but a lot could have gone wrong and I’m happy to say it didn’t.
The plot, which could easily have been boring and repetitive, was exciting and didn’t ever bore me. Not once. I was hooked from the first chapter and couldn’t put the book down, even if at times, I needed to take a break just to give my poor heart some time to deal with all the feelings. I love intricate political back-and-forths and character-driven stories and this book did both wonderfully. Kiersten White knows exactly how to create tension, when to resolve misunderstandings right before they become frustrating, when to switch POV and how to make a rather slow book not feel slow-paced. She also doesn’t shy away from delving deeper into the politics of the world, giving us the complexity that I often find lacking in YA.
How can I talk about the characters without melting into a little puddle of mush? In short, this cast of characters was one of the best I’ve ever come across. They were both great standing on their own, as well as their dynamics with one another. All of them were fleshed-out and three-dimensional, thoroughly flawed yet lovable and at times so relatable it hurt. I went into the book expecting to like Lada (and she did turn out to be my favourite) but I also loved the other characters. Sweet Radu with his good but emotionally scarred soul, Mehmed who does so much wrong and I sometimes wanted to slap but I warmed to anyways, Nikolai who is just the best, and all the female characters of the court who taught Lada what it means to be a woman in their world and how to be powerful and that the two aren’t irreconcilable.
“Ugh,” she muttered, tugging his hair. “You are so pretty. Like a delicate butterfly beneath my boot.”
“Ugh, ” he replied, pulling one of her own curls, which were thick and coarse. “You are so mad. Like a rabid hound that needs to be put down.”
The relationship between the two siblings was one of my favourite aspects of the novel. Their dynamics were done with such realism and honesty that it had me in awe. That wavering between affection, resentment and jealousy felt palpable and in many ways, their relationship was the driving force of the novel.
Lada herself was wonderful and one of my new favourite female characters. She is so fierce, so brutal, at times evil, but somehow also incredibly relatable, something I did not expect. She’s a badass for sure but so much more than that. Her intelligence and calculating nature fascinated me and all I wanted was for her to be happy, to give her a hug and be her best friend. Lada blows other anti-heroines, like Adelina from The Young Elites, out of the water. She’s also a YA main character who isn’t pretty and yields that knowledge like a blade. Watching her fury unfold and seeing the fear, thirst and want behind it was utterly captivating.
The last time she was up here, she had been… staring up at the sky and dreaming of stars. Now, she looked down and plotted flames.
The dynamics between the characters were fabulous to read, though not always a pleasure. There is so much in this book: romance, friendship, sibling love and rivalry; it’s about power struggles and loyalty and the meaning of family. Feminism was clearly an important element but wasn’t ever over-the-top or lecturing and I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that treated power and its importance (both on a personal and macro level) quite so 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?”
I applaud the author for her elaboration on religion and her respectful way of talking about Islam, Christianity and Atheism. The novel also contains unrequited love (and lots of it) a topic that I always want to see, but that I’ve found to be astonishingly sparse in YA literature.
The fact that the author managed to interweave all of this seamlessly, still has me in awe. The sheer relatability I felt while reading was amazing: I felt like I knew these characters and seeing them struggle with so many things that I struggle with daily (though on a completely different scope), made me feel understood and less lonely with my feelings.
Kiersten White’s writing was beautiful and a huge departure from her Paranormalcy series I read from her years ago. Quietly poetic without being purple and always effective and poignant.
The ending was utter perfection. Throughout the whole book I was hoping that the book would end like that, and yet, when it actually came I felt unprepared for all the emotions hitting me simultaneously.
To give you an idea of what to expect, I would probably compare And I Darken most closely to The Winner’s Crime and The Winner’s Kiss by Marie Rutkoski (also two of my favourites). If you loved that trilogy, I’m pretty sure you will love this one too. Otherwise, I know this book isn’t for everyone, as I can see people finding it dragging and slow-paced, but for me it worked perfectly and I full-heartedly recommend it.
I’m going to stop gushing now, just know this: I loved everything about this book and it will end up on my list of favourites for 2016 for sure.