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.