During the last couple of weeks, my methods of choosing what book to read next was basically walking through library and bookshop isles and stopping every time I saw a title that sounds familiar. Whenever I saw a book that I had heard of before (or, to be more specific, that I heard good stuff about), I picked it up without even reading the blurb and started reading it. The same thing happend with And I Darken. More so, my library branch had three (!!) copies of this book, so I was basically convinced this had to be a good one.
Set in the Ottoman Empire and Wallachia, “And I Darken” follows the story of Lada and her brother Radu, children of the leader of Wallachia, who are brought to the Ottoman courts as hostages and leverage against her father. While Lada is fierce and desperate to prove herself to her father (even though she is seen as unimportant because she’s a girl), her brother, who is more gentle was unhappy at his father’s court. In the Ottoman Empire, they befriend Mehmed, the heir to the Empire, and soon their friendship transforms into something more complicated and difficult, as both siblings start to fall in love.
I was so close – so, so close – to not finishing this book. The first 100-ish pages of this book describe Lada’s and Radu’s childhood in Wallachia, the struggles they face, the unfairness of their treatment and the unhappiness they experience. Awful to read at times, I did not connect to the characters at all, and after I forced myself through the first couple of chapters I came to the conclusion that this book was just not for me. But then I missed my bus, with nothing but this book for the next hour, and I thought well, I might as well read on then. And I am so, so grateful that I did.
As soon as the siblings leave their home and grow up a bit, this story explodes. Truly wonderful character development, amazing secondary characters and dialogue, the slow unfurling of the romance and the political plots in the courts of the Ottoman Empire are so, so stunning! The setting and the character’s emotions are incredibly written, both Lada’s reluctance of admitting feelings for the heir of the Empire she hates, and Radu’s struggle with the fact that the feelings he has for Mehmed might be more than friendship. This complex triangle is wonderfully executed, without meeting the cliches of a traditional love triangle.
Lada’s such an amazing character! A girl in a world that tells her that women really aren’t worth much and can barely do anything, she is always fighting her corner, forcing the men around her to accept and respect her. At the same time, she is struggling with the fact, that this harsh facade does not allow her to be viewed as beautiful or ‘traditionally feminine’. She has the most interesting internal monologues, not just about her position and prospects in live, but also about her love of her homeland and family and feelings for her enemy.
Radu’s character arc is equally complex and brilliant. Starting off as a whiny, weak boy in the shadow of his sister, he slowly finds ways to exploit his own strengths, and realizes that physical strength is not everything. Building friendships and alliances in his new home, he soon realizes that he is happier in this foreign court than he ever was at home, and starts to find comfort in the different culture and religion. At the same time, he is watching his sister starting a relationship with the man he loves, knowing that he will never return his feelings. Despite that, his love for his sister never diminishes, and they continue to have one of the most beautiful and complex relationship I have ever read about.
Reading this book, you can really feel the amount of research that has gone into it. No character or setting feels out of place, which makes the story feel incredibly real. Based loosely on real characters, those facts really enhance the reading experience. Kiersten White manages to talk about different religions and views and opinions without valuing one over the other, and without judgement. Especially on difficult topics like this, this alone is incredible.
All in all, I am so incredibly happy I didn’t put this book aside after the first couple of rocky chapters. It’s an amazing story of proving yourself in a world that is refusing to accept you, of heartbreak and family, in an incredibly well-written setting that is coming to live before your very eyes. It had me laugh and cry, and I can’t wait to find out how this story will continue.