Saturday, 25 June 2016

'And I Darken', by Kiersten White

Title: And I Darken (The Conquerors Saga #1)
Author(s): Kiersten White
Release Date: 7th July 2016
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Genre: YA, Historical
Source: Publisher (ARC)

Synopsis:
No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwyla likes it that way.

Ever since she and her brother were abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman sultan’s courts, Lada has known that ruthlessness is the key to survival. For the lineage that makes her and her brother special also makes them targets.

Lada hones her skills as a warrior as she nurtures plans to wreak revenge on the empire that holds her captive. Then she and Radu meet the sultan’s son, Mehmed, and everything changes. Now Mehmed unwittingly stands between Lada and Radu as they transform from siblings to rivals, and the ties of love and loyalty that bind them together are stretched to breaking point.

The first of an epic new trilogy starring the ultimate anti-princess who does not have a gentle heart. Lada knows how to wield a sword, and she'll stop at nothing to keep herself and her brother alive.

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'There is power in watching, waiting, saying the right thing at the right time to the right person. There is power in being a woman-oh yes, power in these bodies you gaze upon with derision.'

As soon as I heard about the premise of this book, I knew it would be straight up my alley. Historical. Set in a period rarely approached. Female lead. Strong, female lead. Retelling the story of a great figure in history, who inspired one of the biggest fictional characters of all time.

With a tremendous fear of having my hopes shattered, I dug into the reading.

And didn't rest until I finished it.

I'm calling it. This is one of my favourite books of 2016!

'And I Darken' tells the story of Lada Dragwyla, the 'daughter of the Dragon'. From the moment of her birth, her whole life has been planned for her. Either she will be beautiful enough to serve a purpose to her father and marry a foreign stranger in a political alliance, or she will be forgotten and thrown into a nunnery. That is the only life a woman can have in their world.

Lada, however, has other plans.

The book starts with the birth of Lada and, from the very beginning, you can see she will not be a 'typical' heroine. Fierce from the moment she takes her first breath, she defies every female stereotype out there. She is not beautiful, she is not fragile, she is not the perfect housewife.

And I love her.

What is crucial in Lada's character development as an 'anti-princess' (and what I believe is not achieved in a lot of other attempts to create a character like her) is that traditionally feminine attributes are not completely torn down. While Lada desires nothing more than to have the same opportunities as a man and to be able to rule her own country, we are also presented with women that are happy with being mothers and wives. Lada does not want that life for herself, and she does question why these women do not wish for something more, but eventually she does understand that there are different ways to achieve one's goals in life, and she learns from it. I have read my fair share of books where the 'badass' female character is presented as the only 'good' way to be a woman, and I am happy to say that this is definitely not one of them.

Another fear I had about reading a 'gender roles' defying female was how she could have easily become what I like to call 'a man with boobs'. While there is nothing wrong with women that adopt a traditionally masculine appearance, a lot of times there is nothing 'feminine' about these characters. This can be misinterpreted and is really what this book is all about (what really defines being a woman or a man?), but what I mean is that while Lada desires to have the same opportunities as a man, she never comes across as one. She is courageous, outspoken, stubborn, protective... I will now measure all other female characters against Lada, please and thank you.

As intricate a character as Lada is, and being evidently the protagonist of this story, the supporting cast of characters held up to her surprisingly well, especially her brother Radu and the sultan's son, Mehmed. The book follows both Lada and Radu from birth, and Mehmed from a very young age, so seeing them growing up and being able to discern all the little pebbles and stones that went into the foundations of who they become as people was delightful to read. As someone that spends most books I read having trouble discerning characters and memorizing names, here I immediately knew who was who, which is incredibly rare for me. I don't believe I have read a book which has managed to pull me into its grasp and made me really get to know its characters as if they were flesh and bone like this in a very, very long time!

That being said, a great part of this book consists of character development. There is an underlining plot, but what really matters here is these people, and understanding how they came to be the fearsome pillars of history they are remembered as. Everything we read about is essential, and you will find yourself wanting to read even about the years that are skipped throughout the book. While in other books this could have translated into a slow paced read, here the historical placement really played into its favor. I have never read a book set in the Ottoman Empire, and I was left thirsting for more. Eastern Europe, regardless of time period, is a very underused setting in literature, and having a chance to read about it was as refreshing as any fantasy, imaginary world.

The big hero of this book for me (and the most unexpected surprise of probably my entire reading life) was, however, Radu. When he first appears, I was fearful that I would end up hating him. He's presented as the polar opposite of Lada, and as what she should have been: beautiful and delicate. After that initial impression, and once we progress out of their earlier years, I was happy to see Radu evolve into his own person and with strengths of his own. Disregarded by everyone, he could have easily given up and become nothing but something pretty to look at, but much like Lada, he finds a way to overcome what is expected of him and find out what he is good at outside of it. Not everything is sunshine and roses for him, though, and my heart was broken repeatedly throughout this book, seeing everything he manages to endure.

Radu is henceforth my adopted child and I will forever protect him.

I was completely blindsided by the fact that there is LGBT+ representation in this book. I wish this wasn't the case, and that having it would be the norm in every book, but until that day comes one tends to expect books to be mostly heteronormative. Not 'And I Darken'. Without wanting to spoil anything, as I believe going into it blind as I did will make for a nice surprise, but there is a main gay character. A lesbian. An implied bisexual. Mentions of other LGBT+ people. Considering the time period this is set in, this could have easily been 'demonized', but it is treated very sensibly and is not relegated to the background of the story.

Another element that could have been treated poorly but was not was the aspect of religion. There is a clash between Christianity and Islam in this book, but neither are ever presented in a bad light. There is even a quote about halfway through where a Muslim man says something along the lines of 'you cannot judge the whole by the actions of a few, people follow their faith differently' and I could nearly cry. I want to print that quote onto t-shirts and give one to every person on this Earth. Seeing a religion that is so often relegated to negative portrayals shown in such a pure, unbiased way proved to be not only a learning experience but also yet another layer in the tower cake of awesomeness this book is.

Kiersten White's most ambitious book to date has managed to tick every single box when it had quite a lot to fill. A page turner of a read, you will find yourself sucked into the lives of these three characters, the political intrigue they weave, and the forbidden loves they fall into. I could easily write thousands of words more about how fantastic this book is, but I will finish with only ten more: go buy this book. You will definitely not regret it.

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