And I Darken

And I Darken - Kiersten White

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

That was an interesting "retelling"—or perhaps introduction to a retelling?—in that it follows Vlad Dracul, with a "what if he had been a girl?" approach. A princess, in a way, provided the daughter of a voivod without that much power can be considered privileged and powerful. Lada isn't so much that as decided to make her own life, and prove to her father that she can do just as well as any boy. Perhaps even more. More ruthless, more brutal, more focused on honing her fighting skills. Everything that is unexpected from a woman in that place and time... unexpected, and not really welcomed either.

Wanting nothing more than to earn the love and esteem of her father, Lada is unearthed, along with her younger brother Radu, and sent as hostage to the sultan's court. Not only does she have to live among the Ottomans she despises, she also has to come to terms with the fact her father basically sold his own children, leaving them at the mercy of his only goodwill: if he doesn't behave, they are to be killed, plain and simple. What can—and should—a girl do in such circumstances? Thirteen, not fitting with the girls, not considered by the men around her, not even pretty (there are a few "beautiful ladies" in the sultan's harem who use their looks as a way of gathering their own threads of power: after all, not all wars are fought on a physical battlefield).

This may not be much, but for once, it was good to find a story in which the heroine is presented as "ugly" and it's all left at that, with only briefs mentions of her tangled hair and such, instead of droning on her eyes and curves and "ugly" features that are actually beautiful when you just pause to think about it. Too many books do that. Well, Lada doesn't care. She's not really described, anyway. And even though she's just as lost as her brother, in a different way hidden behind her fierce attitude, even though she doesn't know how to raise to her own power, she does come to realise that being a concubine is not how she wants to become powerful. She may have been too fierce at times; however, I didn't mind that much.

I didn't care much for Radu in the beginning, as he was quite a crybaby. However, growing up, he evolved into an interesting character when it came to his political shrewdness. While I admit I was a bit tired of his longing after the one person he could never have (because it didn't seem it'd lead to much anyway), he did realise he also had means at his disposal that could make him useful, and help him find a place among the Ottomans. The reversal of roles between brother and sister, man and woman, "the physically weaker but scheming one" and "the fierce warrior who envisions different ways of doing what needs to be done", caught in a love-hate relationship with no sibling exactly knowing until the very end who they're going to choose... that was satisfying.

The romance was... okay-ish. I'm not a fan of love triangles, for starters, so meh. The bond between Lada and Mehmed seemed to be forged more out of friendship and trust than pure lust and swoony "I'll love you forever" clichés; Lada knows from the beginning she doesn't want to be part of a harem or even become a queen, as in such a context it would mean her only value is that of an object, like a treaty. However, it did fall into the usual trap of leading the characters to neglect their own goals at some point (staying for the guy, doing everything for the guy...), and this put a hamper on some of their skills: for instance, Radu's developing ability to play the threads of courtly power gets obfuscated when he thinks and mopes so much about his love interest that he fails to realise who's in the process of betraying him.

Sometimes I also found the story a bit too slow-paced. This may have been because of the romance and angsting, though: since I don't care much for that, I naturally tend to find it a bit boring.

Conclusion: While it's more a 3 to 3.5 stars for me, mostly owing to the love triangle, I still enjoyed the ending and where it seems to lead, and I wouldn't mind reading the next volume—and see how this part of Lada's life is going to play out.