“Heads will roll,” promises the synopsis to Kiersten White’s historical young adult epic, And I Darken. What they don’t mention is that bodies will also be staked, men will be tortured, cities will be besieged, great leaders will be born and torn down, and love will be our undoing.
Set against the reign of the Ottoman Empire, And I Darken is the intriguing and tortuous story of the coming of age of the legitimate children of Vlad Tepes of Wallachia. The eldest is the brutal, self-confident, and almost uncontrollable Lada Dragwlya, Daughter of the Dragon in every way. The younger child is the gentle, fragile Radu, later known as Radu the Handsome. We follow their lives as they are held as pawns by the Ottoman Empire to keep their fickle father in line, where they endure brutality, schooling, and the friendship of the Ottoman emperor’s youngest illegitimate son, Mehmed. Each of these children must learn to play the vicious game for power — in court, on the battlefield, and amongst each other. Can love, loyalty, and self-empowerment be achieved all at once, or must they all be sacrificed to achieve ultimate goals?
The plot of And I Darken is told from alternating point-of-view chapters, allowing us into the experiences, thoughts, emotions, and needs of both Lada and Radu as they endure a father’s disinterest, a foreign land’s culture, a court full of political and personal intrigue, and a young man’s love. The two characters are significantly different — Lada is rough and harsh around the edges, whereas Radu is all soft corners and care — and it is fascinating to experience the plot from both of their points of view. They serve as each other’s foils and as each other’s only allies. From their eyes, the Ottoman Empire is simultaneously presented to us as a prison and as a place of solace; Mehmed is our equal and our greatest forbidden love. At the same time, the siblings so easily change hierarchy: Lada can fall prey to overwhelming fear, especially when it comes to romance and the threat of matrimony, while Radu develops his own cunning way of tearing their enemies’ legs out from under them. Emotions and feelings run high throughout And I Darken, and there were points of turmoil that were very hard for my heart and my mind to endure.
Everything about this story is well-done: its plot is complex and multifaceted; its romantic moments are subplots, not its entirety; and its attention to detail and to historical accuracy was incredible. Its portrayal of the Ottoman Empire and the characters’ experiences there were fascinating, especially as this is a place in history that I personally have not come across often in historical fiction. There are very few moments in which the brutal, roiling pacing of the plot lets us down and even in moments of peace, something menacing will loom just out of sight. It was also fascinating to witness Lada and Radu’s traded gender roles: the female as the protector, the sword, the harsh rock face in contrast to the male as the protected, the emotion, the softer side of things. All of these aspects of And I Darken tie together for an incredible young adult epic bursting with complex characters, distinct foreign lands, and events and twists of fate to astound all readers.
While Lada serves as a fascinating role model for female empowerment in young adult fiction, my greatest difficulty in reading this book was how misled I was by its marketing. It was originally lauded in its blurbs and initial marketing as the story of the “female Dracula,” which had me very interested, thanks in part to my love for Gothic fiction and Elizabeth Kostova’s masterpiece The Historian. Then, it was categorized as a young adult fantasy and adventure novel, among the likes of Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy, Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy. So I wasn’t expecting what I got when I opened the pages of And I Darken: there were no vampires, no fantasy elements, and, worst of all, not a whole lot of heads rolling as its cover page promised. I am as interested in the historical figure Vlad Tepes (lovingly known by the moniker Vlad the Impaler) as I am in his fantastical literary alter ego Count Dracula, but I went into White’s more realistic story with very different expectations. This isn’t to say that this initial surprise ruined my experience; And I Darken was incredible and I can barely fathom the hard work, sweat, and tears that must have gone into this undaunted, heart-wrenching historical tale.
So, whether you come for And I Darken for Lada the Dragon kicking ass and taking lives or for Radu the Handsome’s romantic tragedy or for a fascinating history lesson beyond compare, be prepared: blood will be spilt, hearts will be broken, empires will be tumbled, and no one is safe. Especially the reader.