Wednesday, August 15, 2018

AND I DARKEN (The Conqueror's Saga #1) by Kiersten White

AUTHOR: Kiersten White -- Website | Twitter
PUBLISHED: June 28, 2016 by Delacorte (Penguin Random House)
GENRE: Young Adult, Historical Fiction
PAGES: 475
OBTAINED FROM: Purchased
Find it on Goodreads
RATING: 5 HEARTS

SUMMARY:
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.

And I Darken is a perfect example of a book that at one point, when it first came out, I couldn't get into, but I'm so glad I gave another try.

It's also the first historical fantasy I've ever read. It has its basis in fact in the change that occurred in the Ottoman Empire and Wallachia. The main characters are Lada, Radu, and their friend Mehmed. Kiersten White includes an important author's note here:

"While the book is based on actual historical figures, I have taken massive liberties, filling in gaps, creating characters and events, shifting time lines, and most particularly, changing Vlad the Impaler to Lada the Impaler." 

In regards to Radu, she said this:

"Radu the Handsome is merely a footnote in Vlad's story, but I did my best to breathe life into his legacy."

And finally:


"Mehmed the Conquerer is a revered Turkish national hero, with Istanbul still a testament to his greatness and his ability to think that far into the future. I have done my best to honor that, while still acknowledging that he was a real person. Just how much interaction the three would have had growing up in the Ottoman Courts together is unknown. I've crafted a fictional history in which the formative relationships of their young lives were with each other."

This entire first book take you from Lada's birth -- to a lazy father named Vlad, who had already named one son after him and chose to name his daughter Ladislav, after himself as well. Born in Transylvania in 1435, she was formidable, right from the start. Radu, a slightly more fragile being, was born about a year later. After their mother, Vassilissa abandoned them, they were left to their nurse and her son, Bogdan, roughly the same age as them, as their father was rarely around. Vassilissa seems like a characternym -- look up the word vacillate and you'll find out exactly what I mean. "To be ambivalent," was the phrase that stood out most to me.

Eventually Vlad becomes Prince of Wallachia. While children, the are taken on a rather rare trip with their father to a village near the Arges river, where he takes them to a rundown old fortress and explains to Lada that THIS -- Wallachia -- is her true mother. She takes it to heart and collects some dirty, sticks, and pine needles which she keeps in a pouch she wears. This becomes a defining concept of the book and the entire series. Having Wallachia for her own is paramount, especially once her father trades them to the Ottomon Empire to build his own power when Lada is 13 and Radu is 12.

Lada and Radu strike up a friendship here with Mehmed, often called "the little zealot," but he's of no real threat because he is third youngest of his father Murad's sons. The likelihood of him ever becoming Sultan is minuscule.

As we get to know Lada and Radu (the chapters alternate between them), it becomes obvious that there couldn't be a more stark difference between them. Radu is sensitive where Lada is aggressive. Lada is suspicious of everyone and their intentions where Radu is too trusting. Lada is extremely independent, whereas Radu is at first lost without his nurse and is generally a little needy. Lada is considered by many to be ugly where as Radu grows into a handsome young man. Radu is diplomatic, gifted with a silver tongue and an ability to get people to listen to him -- Lada would rther ram someone through with a sword than be diplomatic. Despite coming from a Christian country, Lada is atheist and her brother Radu is introduced to Islam by a man named Kumal, where he finds great faith and finally, something as tantamount to his character as Wallachia is to Lada.

But as they get older, they find they do have one thing in common: a love for Mehmed that sets them against each other even further. But as he takes up with concubines, marries a first wife, and produces an heir, both Radu and Lada feel a little lost to the rituals of court.

When Wallachia's finally vulnerable, Lada begs Mehmed to send her back to be prince and challenge the current usurper of the throne -- and Radu holds him as he cries.

I thought this book was really triumphant in so many ways.

First, it covers such a long expanse of time. When the book starts Lada has only just been born. She is nearly 18 when they see her off. And she accomplishes so much in that short time. While Radu wanders slightly aimlessly and then only wherever Radu goes, she personally manages to become Jannissary and lead her own troop of all Wallachian men, including Bogdan, when they are finally reunited.

Second, it challenges traditional gender norms. Radu marries Nazira because that is the law-abiding, religiously-approved standard, but she knows that he longs for Mehmed, and she herself has had a spiritual wedding to Fatima, who was Kumal's maid. Lada herself should never have been able to become what she did, but she was a rich character with absolute ideals for herself. She wouldn't cheapen the future she saw for herself by marrying or becoming part of Mehmed's harem. She wouldn't even accept it if Mehmed gave everyone else up for her. She wanted to be an equal to him in every way, not subservient. And as she approaches Wallachia, she says:

"I am no longer the daughter of the dragon ... I am the dragon."

This book is drenched in feminism. It's exactly the kind of book young feminists should be reading. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with getting married and having that kind of wish if you genuinely wish it. But there is something to be said for a YA book that so blatantly contradicts the patriarchy by virtue of Lada.

I give this book 5 Hearts! 

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