BOOK REVIEW: AND I DARKEN, BY KIERSTEN WHITE (2016)

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 16.00.02“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.”

So says Lada Dragwlya to an unlucky suitor, about a quarter of the way into And I Darken. Lada is hot-tempered, mean, and often downright cruel. I can’t think of many other fictional female characters who are as all-round nasty as her–most female antiheroes and villains have some sort of redeeming feature. As the author points out in an interview, “Oftentimes these girls wear prickly armor, but just need the right person to slip past their defenses and reveal their inner chocolate core. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not what I wanted to do. Beneath Lada’s armor is more armor, and beneath that armor is fire.” In fairness, Lada does make friends in this book, and she feels some affection for the two other main characters–but she is always slow to warm to people, and quick to cut them off when she perceives them to be limiting her in any way.

Oh, and did I mention that Lada is a gender-swapped version of Vlad the Impaler–the man whose bloodthirsty exploits inspired Bram Stoker himself when he wrote Dracula?

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 16.00.21Like Vlad, Lada is born in Wallachia (roughly corresponding to modern-day Romania), to a man who becomes that country’s ruler a few years after her birth. Like Vlad, she grows up alongside a younger brother, Radu, who is as soft and squishy as she is fierce and feral. And, also like Vlad, when they’re still children, their father is forced to give both Lada and Radu as hostages to the Ottoman sultan, in exchange for his loyalty. Lada and Radu find themselves in a strange, disorienting world–a world which Radu ends up embracing it, even converting to Islam, while Lada never stops thinking of herself as a prisoner, surrounded by enemies. Things get more complicated when they meet Mehmed, the sultan’s son, who happens to be the same age as them. As the three age, their friendship becomes one of the more interesting fictional love triangles I’ve ever encountered, and, at the same time, they face enough intrigue to fill three or four seasons of Game of Thrones, with assassination attempts, behind-the-scenes scheming, revolts, surprise babies, dethronements, and even a defenestration. The chapters alternate between Lada’s perspective, and Radu’s.

Now, I could spend the rest of this post writing about Lada’s nastiness. How do irredeemable female characters fit within the context of modern-day sexism and misogyny? What does it mean to root for them, or to find them compelling? It’s worth thinking about these things, but, ultimately, for me, it’s a question of equality: for every Walter White or Tony Soprano, there should be a Lada Dragwlya. And it’s a question of diversity: providing as wide a spectrum as possible of female characters, to reflect the fact that there are innumerable ways of being a woman, just as there are innumerable ways of being a man, and innumerable ways of being a gender non-conforming person.

Indeed, if Lada is an example of a woman who achieves her aims by being twice as brutal as the men she encounters, the novel also features a number of minor and not-so-minor women who use alternative means to get ahead in a patriarchal society. Some weave complicated plots behind the scenes, some patiently endure their circumstances waiting for the perfect opportunity for emancipation, some pay lip service to conventions but privately live the life they want to live, and some are just handy with gunpowder. Similarly, there are quite a few queer characters (men and women, common and noble, minor and major), and, though they all have to hide their queerness in some way, there’s also a good degree of variation in the way they express and experience it.

And, lest you think that And I Darken‘s cast, however varied, is made up of mere types, or boxes to be ticked, rest assured that Kiersten White is a master of writing characters. For a few minor characters and all major one, especially Radu and Lada, each chapter adds an extra layer to their personality and motivation, while somehow remaining true to their nature, as established when we first encounter them.

This is a long novel: at almost 500 pages, the dramatic tension does slacken at times. Also, some readers may be disappointed to find out that there are no supernatural elements. And you might want to skip this book if political intrigue isn’t your thing–there are a lot of schemes and counter-schemes here, though I don’t think they are particularly hard to follow.

Finally, a trigger warning: there is an attempted rape about three-quarters of the way into the book.

If none of these things are a problem, I highly recommend this book: I’ve developed a genuine fondness for Radu and Lada (and Nicolae, and Nazira, and Kumal), and I’d love you to meet them too.

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