From Goodreads: 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. [Read the rest at GoodReads]
Vlad the Impaler. Radu the Handsome. Mehmed the Conqueror. A trio of historical figures from the mid-1400s in a time of conflict between European Christianity and the growing Islamic Ottoman Empire. Historical records of that time are old and fragmented, with historical figures often made out to be pure hero or villain. This novel re-imagines their stories as real people, neither pure hero or villain, in this fictionalized, alternate-history version of the world, where Vlad the Impaler is Ladaslav (or Lada) the Impaler. The book is first in a trilogy, and this volume follows Lada and her brother Radu as they move through childhood and adolescence, first in their home in Wallachia, then as captive bargaining chips abandoned in the Ottoman Empire and befriended by future Sultan Mehmed.
I’m not normally a fan of historical fiction, and I’m even less of a fan when historical fiction focuses on real people and takes many liberties with their lives. However, the alternate-history aspect of this book takes it out of the realm (for me) of assumption and places it firmly into fiction – using fiction to discuss history, rather than using history as a vehicle for fiction. It’s a fine line, and one many people wouldn’t care about, but for me, that made this book one I could enjoy wholeheartedly.
And I did enjoy it wholeheartedly. I know very little about this time period and I found myself alternating between reading the book and looking up historical details about events, geography, religion, people, etc. This is the best kind of history, in my opinion – the kind of history that focuses on people, psychology, culture, and all the messy grey areas that make up the decisions one must make while holding power. When a history teacher or textbook presents a series of timelines, events, and facts about a point in time, my eyes glaze over and I struggle to remember any of it. But when someone tells that same history as a story as seen by the people experiencing it, that point of time becomes relatable, and then memorable. It doesn’t matter whether this is done with fiction, like in this book, or with creative nonfiction (The Romanov Sisters is the first that comes to mind). Either way, I deeply appreciate when an author can help me engage with history, a subject that is difficult for me to engage with most of the time.
And I Darken is more than just an interesting historical retelling, though. White does a phenomenal job weaving together many different plot elements. Her writing and pacing are both excellent, and she uses the leverage of the alternate world as a way to explore so many different aspects of life in this era: what is means to be homosexual in a world that doesn’t understand or accept; the particular difficulties in being a woman during that time; the balance of weighing various acts against each other when all choices will hurt someone; the choice of commitment to family or love or country or god. It was beautifully executed, and this review doesn’t do it justice.
PS – The cover looks a lot like many current YA fantasy/paranormal books, but it’s definitely not. No magic, no fantasy, and barely even YA. Don’t let the cover turn you away if that’s not normally your kind of thing!