Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.
My one-word descriptor for this book would be long.
Long is not necessarily bad for historical fiction. However, this long novel had a slow start and it read even longer than it was. Still, I’m glad I stuck with it because it did eventually pick up.
Part of my difficulty may have been unfamiliarity with the politics of the time period in this particular region. I’ve heard of Vlad the Impaler. With my irrational fear of vampires, I’m aware of the theory that the legend of Count Dracula was born out of the true life story of a particularly brutal Romanian count, Vlad Draculae (Vlad III). But aside from that tenuous link, I knew nothing of Vlad’s troubled reign or conflicts with the Ottoman Empire.
And I Darken by Kiersten White is a decidedly a-historical novel that follows a very rough framework of the life of Vlad III, one which asks the question: what if Vlad had been female?
Because I was expecting more of a historical fantasy, I requested the book thinking it would be a mix of fantasy elements in an exotic setting with an anti-heroine--a brutal princess who did (possibly magic-related) things to gain power and then rule. In that more fantastical realm, I could have envisioned a female Vlad the Impaler-like character. But that was not this book. This was the story of the historical character Vlad made female and named Lada.
(While reading this, the question that sprang to my mind was not what if Vlad had been female but, rather, have we really run out of interesting female characters from history to write novels about? Why take interesting male historical figures and rewrite them as females? Are male heroes uninteresting to readers simply because they are male?) I know the trend is to make female protagonists more violent and thus more self-sufficient and interesting, but the female heroines are all starting to blend together. So is the answer increasing the cruelty? Lada (the female Vlad) will stand out because she is not simply violent but notoriously brutal.
Keep in mind, this novel is getting many strong positive reviews, so you may find you love the book. My dissatisfaction stems largely from a very subjective preference for historical accuracy in novels (unless they are romances), even while understanding that these books are fiction, so some liberties are needed. But the core of this novel, the whole plot, is based on Lada being female. The blurb promoting the book is clear on that point so it’s my own fault for not being able to accept the clearly advertised premise.
Life takes a turn for the worse when her father needs the help of the Ottomans. He leaves his two young children with the sultan as hostages. There they are even more miserable until they meet the young son of the sultan, Mehmed. The three become fast friends. As they grow up, Lada and Radu help conspire to make Mehmed the powerful wise sultan they know he has the potential to be.
There’s a good deal of palace intrigue. Lada trains with the Janissaries (an elite army of Ottoman slave/soldiers.) Radu studies Islam and converts. Much of this reads as filler, setting the stage for the action that will eventually happen. Its important background to support what will come next, but the pace was slow.
Over the course of years, Mehmed falls in love with Lada. Lada returns his love but refuses to admit it, because the goal she has set for herself is to return to Wallachia to take possession of what she feels is hers. Radu falls in love with Mehmed, but this sort of love is forbidden so he has to pretend his feelings are no more than friendship and intense loyalty.
Eventually, after some battles, more intrigues, some deaths, the three friends have to make hard choices about what means the most to them and what they will sacrifice to reach their individual goals.
I did google Vlad the Impaler, Mehmed the Conqueror, and Wallachia in order to have some historical context. Despite the lengthy set-up, the book itself didn’t situate me in the setting the way other historical novels set in unfamiliar times/places generally do. Perhaps it’s because I knew the centrally important character’s conflicts would be fake (historically speaking). I found myself unable to guess what was supposed to be sort of historical and what was just made up out of whole cloth. Googling helped me to see that the author does use a lot of the names of actual historical people. And some of the timeline is borrowed from history. And while that made me think there was an interesting framework for the story, I was never able to really immerse myself in this alternate history. Seeing the story reframed as that of dysfunctional families and a tortuous love triangle made this a frustrating read for me. I kept thinking how much more interesting a story of the real Vlad would be. It isn’t that it’s a bad story or an uninteresting one. It’s simply that for me, it didn’t click. I think I would have enjoyed it more had the author divorced it from Vlad the Impaler and set the whole thing on a fictional stage in a made-up world. Then I could have enjoyed the story for what it was rather than being frustrated by what it was not.