And I Darken

And I Darken by Kiersten White is a really interesting piece of historical fiction, the central premise of which is that Vlad the Impaler is born female instead of male. It’s unfortunately somewhat undercut by the fact that the author just isn’t a great writer, but the social commentary is deliciously biting and it’s exceptionally well-researched, so as long as you’re not expecting to be at the edge of your seat I think it’s worth checking out just because it’s so no-holds-barred.

Vlad the Impaler, as we all I’m sure know, was the violent 15th-century Eastern European warlord who served as a major inspiration for Dracula — Vlad’s family name was Dracul.

I generally find the premise ‘situation x BUT A WOMAN ZOMG THIS IS MINDBLOWING AJKHDKJFHD’ to be, on its best days, exceptionally tired (and on its worst straight-up stupid), but White makes it work largely because the character she chose is a) not common knowledge and b) so violent and caught up in so much turmoil that the first section of the book is basically one giant action scene. A 12-year-old girl beating the shit out of people and biting them while her dad looks on and chuckles is fucking entertaining and there’s not much you can do to make it boring.

The story opens on Vlad Sr being disappointed that he got a son instead of a daughter, and an ugly daughter at that. He gives no fucks about her, and this means that she’s free to be whoever she wants to be. She grows up idolizing her violent warlord father and protecting her wimpy younger brother Radu, all while spitting venom at people who tell her to act like a girl and punching people who call her ugly. Her nursemaid has a weird affinity for her and allows her to get away with everything as a little kid, so that by the time she’s a preteen she gives no fucks. The book goes on to cover Vlad the Impaler’s life from his father’s defeat and the family’s exile to the Ottoman city of Edirne 1442 through his escape from Edirne and march back toward Romania in 1448.

In the interim, Lada, as she’s known, deals with the seeming impossibility of a female prince on the throne of her home country, her feelings to the Ottoman sultan-to-be, and her love-hate relationship with her brother.

The book is such a good social commentary. It deals with stark feminist themes, but also explored Radu’s discovering his homosexuality, the influence of religion, and more. I really really loved that it took on the whole ‘sexuality is women’s power uwu’ thing and smashed it to bits — it was so satisfying, on a meta level, to see the so-called power of the harem leader fall apart, and for Lada to realize explicitly that, no, sex is not power, as it’s still contingent on men to give it, and they can take it back. Real power, she is reassured, comes only from yourself and your own conquests. Lada’s terror of being married off and her eventual relief that she’s unattractive was, I though, very powerful. Rape is an ever-present threat in her life, not just because there are predators everywhere, but because any marriage would be one she’d be forced into.

This is not a book that pulls punches, which is phenomenally rare in YA.

The problem, as I said, is that White is not a great writer.

She’s just not compelling. The book has a huge tell-not-show problem, in that the entire thing is basically told to us. While this isn’t a deal-breaking issue in the more action-y first half of the book, it’s a huge drag in the Edirne portion, which needed to be about serious internal and intra-character conflict and which White just couldn’t pull off. I was considering buying the sequel and then realized I just cared about what happened, not how they got there or even who got there, so I just read the last chapter. This is not a good place for as book to be (that said, I’d more open to the sequel now than I was right after I finished — take that how you will). White took a compelling story with an interesting setting and vicious social commentary and managed to make it shockingly boring. It was so hard to get invested in the characters, because there was always that third-person wall in between the reader and their feelings, and White just could not get in their heads. The only person I was invested in at all was Lada, and even that was waning by the end.

I literally found the writing of the wikipedia article about Vlad the Impaler more compellingly written.

It’s extra frustrating because White’s writing is technically quite good; it’s readable, clean, and well-organized. It doesn’t feel padded or rushed. It’s just not interesting writing. It really, really bogs down the book, to the point that it downgrades it from really strong rec to a really conditional one, which is kind of sad because is has so many of the elements that a lot of the books we do here really lack, it just can’t get that extra 20% of the way.

Still, there’s a lot of good content here, absent the delivery, and it’s is profoundly satisfying to finally read a book that manages to be biting without being satirical; pointed without being ham-handed. White has a lot of good things to say; I just really wish she was better at saying them.

14 Comments

  1. CrazyEd says:
    I think I added this book to my list of things to check out at the same time you did, and while I haven’t because the local library is a two mile walk and it’s been getting hotter every day I’ve been dealing with other things and the local library is a two mile walk through New Jersey humidity and this just reinforces that I really need to.

    Many times, I’ve been reading the wikipedia articles of far more obscure historical figures than Vlad the Impaler, and thought “wow, this person would make a great character in a historical novel, which I should totally write”, and only didn’t because I had absolutely no clue about the historical period or anything like that and researching it would be far too much work for something I’m writing primarily for my own enjoyment. I did that once for a short story I wrote about Oda Hidenobu and it was a nightmare even though I’m actually familiar enough with that period of Japanese history to not need to embark on months of historical research about the time period itself just to write it.

    (Coincidentally, the last time I thought this, it was Stephen Bathory of Poland, who was Voivode of Transylvania about a century after Vlad the Impaler. I think, before him, it was Duke Frederick III of Wurttemberg.)

    And, on a technical level, it’ll be interesting to see the prose that you’ve described so negatively. My delivery is one of the biggest faults I find with my own writing, so I’d love to see how it compares to this.




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  2. SpoonyViking says:

    Hmmm. I wonder if the premise wouldn’t work better with a different figure? Vlad already faced many, many difficulties related to people not respecting his power or accepting his authority, did changing his gender really add so many layers to the story? Plus, it feels a bit flimsy that the only reason Lada wasn’t married off was because she was unattractive.

    That said, I’m actually quite interested. Shame even the ebook is so expensive, though, particularly when it seems it’s just not well-written. I’ll probably give this one a pass, unless I find it at a cheaper price somehow.




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  3. Mel says:
    I thought I saw a view of this somewhere else saying that it was really orientalist and the sexuality was actually handled really badly (can the whole unrequited gay love trope please die in a hole).

    If even someone who loved the concept found the writing dry I think I might skip this one. :/




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    1. Act says:

      sexuality was actually handled really badly (can the whole unrequited gay love trope please die in a hole).

      Historically, Radu and Memet do end up together, so ‘in the first book of the three the gay charcater’s main romantic relationship isn’t completely solved’ seems like an unfair complaint, especially since the bulk of this book is his childhood and him discovering he’s gay as he grows up. Meanwhile, Radu does have a love toward the end and the lesbian side character whose name slips my mind is in a long-term relationship (edit: Nazira! And her partner was Fatima; their family were my favorite side characters).

      If after the third book (or even the second) Radu and Memet never end up together, that would certainly merit a lot of complaint, and I’d be more suspicious if there weren’t other depictions of gay relationships, but this doesn’t really ring true to me for book 1.

      really orientalist

      Any chance you could elaborate? The book was exceptionally well-researched, and as far as I could tell the portrayal of Edirne was accurate.




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      1. SpoonyViking says:

        Historically, Radu and Memet do end up together, […]

        Actually, I was curious about how their relationship is depicted in the book. While they did become lovers eventually, it seems that at first Mehmed tried to force himself on Radu and was nearly killed when the latter resisted; plus, one was a hostage to the other, so the power dynamics were obviously uneven in the relationship. Does the series deal with any of those themes?




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        1. Act says:

          Well, like I said above, the bulk of the book is Radu from childhood to teenagehood and it’s mostly him just figuring out he’s gay, but it does seem to end with Mehmed acknowledging Radu’s feelings for him and Radu agreeing to stay so they can be together.

          Mehmed is generally portrayed as kind of a ‘nothing and no one matters in the face of power’ guy to start with so that he’d continue to use Radu and string him along makes sense to me, but we haven’t gotten to that point in the first book so it’s hard to say how it will be handled.

          (I think it’d solve the problem of the negative trope by letting Radu realize Mehmed is kind of a dick and then giving him a real stable love interest.)




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          1. SpoonyViking says:

            Hmmm…

            Is there an excerpt of the first chapter anywhere? I’m interested in the book, but your comments on the writing give me pause.




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        2. CrazyEd says:
          Wow, the way you put it, it kinda makes it sound like he really didn’t have a choice in the matter. Do you know if that’s the case? My knowledge of Ottoman history doesn’t cover the life of Mehmed II.



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          1. SpoonyViking says:

            Well, caveat emptor: that’s not really my area of expertise, I only read about Radu and Mehmed because I was interested in reading more about the historical figure who was one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But no, I can’t actually tell you whether Radu became Mehmed’s lover willingly or not, only that by the time both were adults, it seems he was Mehmed’s favourite lover and enjoyed the benefits of the position: he served Mehmed seemingly loyally as a warrior and a commander, and also received great support from Mehmed when he fought against Vlad Dracula and was installed as the vassal ruler of Wallachia.




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            1. CrazyEd says:
              Well, I can’t say anything about whether or not they were lovers, but I wouldn’t really use “enjoying the benefits” as proof of anything either way. I’m no expert in Ottoman history, but feudal history in general is loaded down with people who work for people they absolutely despise because it’s politically advantageous for them. Imagine being Radu. Say you absolutely detested Mehmed II on a personal level, but he offered to install you as voivode of your homeland because he absolutely detested the current voivode on a personal level. Would you, in that position, reject his offer?

              The first rule of Crusader Kings 2: Vassal management can will be a bitch.

              (… Well. The second rule. The first rule is that murdering the baby is always the right move.)




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            2. SpoonyViking says:

              Sure, but do not miss the “seemingly loyally” or “fought against [his brother]” parts.




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            3. CrazyEd says:
              Same Dynasty: +5

              Title Claimant: -20

              Lesson 1.1 of Crusader Kings 2: Especially if they’re your brothers. Kill them.




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    2. Act says:

      Wait, are you referring to this review? Because its complaints range from nonsense to objectively wrong.

      Or maybe that’s unfair, taking the microcosm of Romania and Turkey and projecting it onto the dynamic of Western Europe and West Asia.

      I actually think the complaint here is a fair one, but unavoidable given the time period.

      The Ottoman Empire is a place of myths and religions and hidden gardens and hares, while Wallachia is a place of physicality, even as it exists for the better part of the narrative only as an idea in Lada’s mind.

      This sentence is absurd, and even internally contradicts itself. The bulk of the book is set in Turkey, and the main conflict between Lada and Radu is that she pines for this idealized Wallachia she’s created in her mind while he’s become happy in the reality of Edirne. The two settings literally serve the opposite purpose the reviewer says they do, with Edirne being real, physical, full of nuanced people and placeds they come to know, while Wallachia is an idea and a myth.

      In this world, bisexuality is not a thing

      This is objectively untrue. The book ends with Memet and Radu confessing to each other, first of all, and Radu meets multiple soldiers who make passes at him while also being involved with women.

      And when you are the object of queer love, as Radu is for a soldier ten years older than him who often acts like a mentor for him, it is repulsive and uncomfortable, even predatory.

      This is another ridiculous misreading. It was the soldier’s affection that made Radu realize he was gay, and the ‘discomfort’ was from not realizing his own identity and coming to face it, not because gay is gross but because Radu had never confronted his own feelings before. Nothing at all about the soldier was predatory or wrong, and painting him as some kind of predator ‘grooming’ Radu, who never gets together with him, like the review does is really creepy.

      every Muslim other than Mehmed is incidental (and Mehmed is called “the little zealot”––so the only major sympathetic Muslim character is one whose primary characteristic is his faith and religiosity

      This is so untrue is makes me genuinely suspicious of the reviewer’s motives. First, Radu’s major character arc concerns his conversion to and love of Islam. He meets a kind older man at the mosque who becomes a dear friend of his, teaches him how to pray, and how the morality of Islam makes one a good person (can’t remember his name again — it’s been a while since I read this). He’s actually Nazira’s father, and their whole family is devout and may be the only group of characters in the whole book with no ulterior motives. They’re a huge part of the story, and literally are there to demonstrate the good of Islam and what it can offer to people.

      Meanwhile, Mehmed is called ‘zealot’ by the people who rebel against him, who Lada and Radu defeat. Historically, Mehmed goes on to conquer Constantinople, vindicated his plans and cementing his legacy. The people who disparage him this way are wrong

      every queer character other than Radu is incidental, where every girl other than Lada is incidental, every Muslim other than Mehmed is incidental 

      …yes. Yes, the characters other than the three protagonists are less important. Yes, this is a thing that is true.

      Ottoman Empire, harems are not handled well.

      No elaboration — how should they have been handled?

      Eunuchs are Othered, Muslims are Othered, gay people are Othered 

      I have no idea what this means. Eunuchs, indeed, do not factor largely in the story. Maybe they should have, though in what capacity I’m not sure. But how the hell are Muslims and gay people othered when the major plotlines of the story involve Mehmed and Radu being gay and Muslim and happy about it?

      I wonder if perhaps the reviewer was mistaking Lada’s purposeful mental Othering of Edirne and the people in it for the book’s feelings. Lada’s main character conflict in the Edirne portion is that she does come to love the city and people, and can’t reconcile this with her devotion to Wallachia and her dream of being prince. She spend a lot of time purposely casting Edirne, its culture, and its people are ‘foreigners’ in her mind in an effort to deny that she’s come to feel that it’s home (this isn’t even subtle — she literally catches herself thinking ‘let’s go home’ and then angsts about how she can’t forget it’s not really her home). Her attitude ruins her relationship with her brother and leads to her turning on Mehmed even though she’s fallen for him, all while preventing her from escaping because the truth is she loves the place. The whole damned point of Radu was to show that Lada’s struggle here was subjective, not objective, since he gives himself fully to Edirne and he’s not wrong.

      I can’t even imagine how you misread the book this badly unless it’s purposeful. Or, I guess, if you’re really used to reading straightforward YA, and when you hit something with a bit more subtlety, you’re not prepared and take things at face value anyway? This is one of the reasons I don’t like the dumbing-down of kids’ and YA, but it’s hard to tell if that’s the culprit here.




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      1. CrazyEd says:
        This is so untrue is makes me genuinely suspicious of the reviewer’s motives.

        Even not having read this book, this would make me suspicious. Mehmed sounds like he’d be one of the primary characters in the summary of the premise, so saying that his primary characteristic is his faith and religiosity because someone called him a zealot seems like a dramatic oversimplification of the character no matter how you slice it, even if he is depicted as very religious.

        I don’t know how personally devout Mehmed II was, but “zealot” is a word generally only directed at someone by people who don’t like them, so using the beliefs of those people as the cornerstone of your interpretation of a character just seems like a terrible idea; especially if the characters in question were mid-fifteenth century Christians talking about a Muslim. Were they? Was Mehmed even depicted as exceptionally pious in the first place?

        Or, I guess, if you’re really used to reading straightforward YA, and when you hit something with a bit more subtlety, you’re not prepared and take things at face value anyway?

        You know what it sounds like? It sounds like this book actually has… I wouldn’t say an unreliable narrator, since it sounds like they’re accurately narrating what’s going on, but in a highly biased way. Young Adult doesn’t usually have the narrative disagreeing with its protagonists. I think you hit the nail on the head here. This review assumes you’re supposed to agree with Lada’s opinion of Edirne because you’re always supposed to agree with the protagonists of YA novels because their biases are always true.




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