This book is an enthralling, disturbing, seriously messed up trip. And I loved it.
An alternate history of Vlad the Impaler (recast as a woman, Lada Dragwlya), Mehmed the Great, and Radu the Handsome, this book takes us to the heart of the Ottoman Empire as it sets its sights on Constantinople. Lada and her brother Radu become pawns in their father’s capitulation to the Sultan and befriend young Mehmed before his rise to the throne.
Above all, And I Darken, the first book in a trilogy, is Lada’s origin story. It recounts the childhood and adolescence that forms the ruthless ruler she’ll become.
Here a couple things writers can learn from White’s gender-bent history of an intriguing historical trio.
1. Use POV to your advantage.
In alternating third-person close POV chapters, Lada and Radu tell the story of their childhood in Wallachia (modern-day Romania), their captivity in the Ottoman Empire, and their growing friendship––and maybe more––with Mehmed, one of the Sultan’s sons. And this may be the best use of alternating POV chapters I’ve ever read.
Lada is an intense, driven, violent character. She has her reasons for being so––I’ll dig into this in the next section––and White takes care to build empathy for this complex, wounded girl. Even so, spending the entire novel in her head would have been…a bit much. White made a savvy choice to alternate Lada’s first-person perspective with her brother Radu’s. In many ways, the siblings are foils for each other. The novel is all the richer for their interwoven, conflicting, nuance-crafting points of view.
Where Lada is strong and guarded to a fault, Radu is vulnerable, self-doubting, and sensitive. When the siblings are young, all Radu wants is to belong––but Lada rejects him, preferring to spend time with their nurse’s rough-and-tumble son. As Lada and Radu grow, their relationship does, too. It’s fascinating to watch their dual perspectives as they navigate misunderstandings, conflicts, and sibling love.
The alternating perspectives allow White to explore nuances of the novel’s historical and cultural setting, too. Lada and Radu experience their world in such a different way, both at home in Wallachia, with a cruel father who hates Radu’s weakness and reluctantly comes to respect Lada, and under the care of the Sultan in the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Radu embraces Islam, with its rituals and brotherhood and sense of belonging and peace. Meanwhile, Lada finds the religion useless––it cannot give her the thing she craves most: control over her life. While Radu finds the call to prayer calming and stirring to his soul, Lada detests it as a frequent reminder of how far she is from her home.
2. Deeply understand your characters so your readers can, too.
Many Goodreads reviewers called out the same brutal paragraph of Lada’s dialogue:
“On our wedding night,” she said, “I will cut out your tongue and swallow it. Then both tongues that spoke our marriage vows will belong to me, and I will be wed only to myself. You will most likely choke to death on your own blood, which will be unfortunate, but I will be both husband and wife and therefore not a widow to be pitied.”
When I read that, I figured Lada would be a Frank Underwood–style antihero: one I love to hate, but am not exactly rooting for. But Lada’s not a Frank Underwood at all. She’s a complicated hero, but one we can root for without reservations (…so far, at least). White achieves this by understanding her protagonist deeply, so readers can understand her, too.
Lada bites and stabs and plots and kills, but it’s out of necessity: it’s what she has to do to secure her place in the world. To gain power. And above all––in my reading––it’s what she has to do to distinguish herself from her mother.
Early in the book, young Lada watches her mother crawl across the floor at the behest of Lada and Radu’s father. In an instant, Lada learns: women are powerless. Women are weak. And she will do anything she can to keep from being one of those weak, powerless women.
Later, this assessment grows more complicated, as Lada begins to see there’s more than one way to gain power. But the important piece here, the one we can take away as writers, is that Lada’s fear of weakness has an origin. We see this image so clearly on the page––young Lada, horrified as her mom prostrates herself. And just as the image burns into Lada’s mind, it burns into our minds, too.
From then on, we’re unabashedly cheering for this ambitious, complicated, troubled, brilliant girl.
Want to chat about And I Darken or other great YA and middle grade titles? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.