And I Darken by Kiersten White
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I was about to read this book last year, but a Muslim friend advised me against it because she disagreed with its representation of her religion, so I followed her advice and returned it to the library unread. But then recently, another Muslim friend read and reviewed this book pretty favorably, especially in terms of Muslim rep, so inspired by that (and the fact that the sequel is now out), I decided to give And I Darken the chance I would've given it a year ago.
After reading through all almost 500 pages of this book, I've concluded that my thoughts on this novel fall somewhere in between those of my two friends in terms of how we rated it. I didn't dislike it, but I can't really say I liked it, either, not when it was so long and slow and half of it was in the head of Lada, the genderswapped Vlad the Impaler, who proved to be one of the most unlikable (if not the most) protagonists I've seen in the world of YA. Lada is an absolute misanthrope, disdainful of anyone who shows any sign of weakness (including herself), very violent, and suffers from a certain case of internalized misogyny. In short, her head is tons of no fun to inhabit, and it really does drag down my rating for this book, to be honest.
The day to Lada's night, though, is her younger brother Radu, a really gentle soul - and one who has a much easier time making friends, when he's not surrounded by those who think it's cool to beat him up. And also, Radu has a certain appreciation for the finer things in life. Like natural beauty. Or religion. While neither he nor Lada much enjoy the Orthodox Christianity to which they were born and raised, he, unlike his sister, doesn't shy away from religion (unless to use it as a hill to die on for why she thinks the Ottoman Empire is evil incarnate.) Radu takes to Islam like a fish to water, appreciating the religion's relative simplicity and devotion to peace, charity, and virtue in general. And unlike Christianity, where the book focuses on sharp sectarian divisions like Orthodox vs. Catholic, White presents a largely positive outlook on Islam, especially as soon-to-be-sultan Mehmed seeks out multiple interpretations of scripture to expand his education.
The one thing I didn't like about Radu's characterization was how it relied a lot on stereotypes of gay men being effeminate, weak, prone to excessive emotion, etc. Not to mention, in the second half of the story when he comes to realize he's gay, it gives him tons of angst because the society of the time wouldn't accept him for that. To White's credit, though, she does not make religion a reason behind Radu's angst - more his fear of alienating those he loves. But there's that problem with stereotypes rearing its ugly head - not only for Radu, but for Lada as well, because Lada is, again, stricken with some serious internalized misogyny, as she considers being a woman to be a weakness. In early scenes, Radu treats his own puberty like a curiosity, while for Lada, hers is traumatic and terrifying, probably because, well, it only means she's maturing and will be expected to take on traditional female roles to which she cannot, will not, adhere.
In general, though, Lada's refusal to bend to social expectations, while making for interesting reading, also makes her supremely unlikable because it comes across sometimes like she's just super-duper petty. A bit of the worst parts of Daenerys and Cersei, to be honest - and sometimes going beyond the latter's "love to hate." And while we're at it, no, this book is not a YA Game of Thrones - it's not bloody enough (even if it does deal with the early years of an alternate-historical Vlad the Impaler), and there's no magic. The only thing it really has in common with A Song of Ice and Fire is endless politicking.
Though I'm definitely planning to read Now I Rise as soon as possible, I'm going into that one with trepidation because, frankly, I think Lada's just going to get worse from here on out. But at least there should be some nice chapters in Radu's third-person POV to liven things up.
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