Book Review: And I Darken by Kiersten White

27190613Title: AND I DARKEN
Author: Kiersten White
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 475
Publisher: Delacorte Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

And I Darken is a clever gender-bent retelling of the tale of Vlad the Impaler. I actually hadn’t realized this when I started the book, so it was a pleasant surprise!

Lada Dragwyla, Daughter of the Dragon, is introduced to us as a fierce, ferocious young girl who grows into an even fiercer teenager. Her character was a joy to behold: she is truly ruthless and pragmatic to a fault. At her core is her intense loyalty to Wallachia, her country of birth, and her desire to one day reign there.

And I Darken starts at the very, very beginning: with Lada’s birth, quickly followed by her younger brother Radu’s birth. After a few chapters of adjusting to the setting and character, the story quickly moves on to the main plot: Lada and Radu are delivered to the Ottoman sultan as hostages by their father to ensure Wallachia’s loyalty. Teeming with fury at her father’s betrayal, Lada, unlike her brother Radu, never comes to see the Ottomon Empire as home, despite her love for Mehmed, the young sultan.

This book is unusual in a lot of ways, the first being the plot itself. The author accurately follows the thread of history, for the most part, bringing to life a largely unknown chapter in the lives of Vlad the Impaler and Radu the Handsome. Another unusual aspect is the various relationships in this book, which are intriguing and complex. Lada and Radu care for one another, but their relationship is fraught: Lada hates Radu’s timidity, and Radu is put off by Lada’s viciousness. At the same time, they are both in love with the same man, Mehmed, though Mehmed seems to only have eyes for Lada.

Something else I thought was wonderful was the portrayal of Islam. Upon coming to the Ottoman Empire, Radu almost immediately falls in love with Islam. Eventually, he converts, and his appreciation of Islam’s beauty was really refreshing to see. He talks often of the peace he finds in prayer and the call of the athan, while at the same time he worries about Lada perceiving him as a traitor because he embraced this aspect of their captors. It’s an intriguing personal struggle.

I absolutely loved Lada, an unapologetic and unlikable protagonist, but I also found Radu a fascinating character whose growth was deftly done. Though Radu starts out as naive and weak, he eventually grows into a skilled politician, able to navigate treacherous court politics in the subtle way Lada lacks. In the midst of it all he retains his loyalty and kindness; he actually reminded me a lot of Sansa Stark. He also struggles with his sexuality (insomuch as it is understood in such a way back then) as he comes to terms with his love for Mehmed.

The book also features some wonderful nuanced discussions of womanhood and what it means to be a woman in a world of men. Lada struggles constantly with the contradiction of who she is and how people want her to be because of her gender. She does not embody traditional femininity in any way and scorns this in many other women. However, this stops short of “I’m-not-like-other-girls” because of the way the narrative interrogates the various ways women carve space for themselves in the world. Lada muses on the ways in which women wield power, whether with a sword or with their femininity. She doesn’t necessarily come to any particular conclusion, but her confusion is sure to ring true with many young women who read this book.

One of the things that may perhaps be considered a weakness is the somewhat plodding pace. Personally, I didn’t have too much of an issue with this because I really enjoyed and connected with the characters, but it is not an exaggeration to say this book moves very slowly. Again, it begins with Lada and Radu being born, and the author does not spare details about their childhood. Pacing was odd as well; I couldn’t really identify any one particular moment of plot climax, but I think that might be because this book is very, very character driven. It is focused mainly on Lada and Radu’s growth and development and how they affect the history of the Ottomans and the reign of Mehmed. And of course the plot is constrained by history, which doesn’t follow traditional plot structure.

In short, I’m very excited to read the sequel!

Book Review: Iron Cast by Destiny Soria

28818313Title: IRON CAST
Author: Destiny Soria
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 384
Publisher: Amulet Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (3.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

This book takes a long time to find its feet. Though it opens with an asylum breakout, the plot slows down from there. Hints are dropped as to what the main conflict is, but it builds up very slowly, as the author takes her time to establish the setting (Boston, 1919) and introduce the magic system. Ordinarily, this would be the type of book I would abandon, but what pushed me to keep going were the characters, which are really the best thing about this novel. Every single character was vibrant, complex, and compelling, and many of their narratives subvert common tropes and stereotypes. The word “diversity” is used a lot these days as kind of a nebulous buzzword, so I try to shy away from using it, but it really fits here. I was ecstatic to be reading a about a 1920s Boston that wasn’t all straight white people.

There’s Ada Navarra, daughter of a Portuguese father and a Mozambican mother, both immigrants. Ada is biracial, and her struggles with this are alluded to in the novel, but never in ways that feel ham-fisted. Ada ruminates on her place in the world because of the color of her skin. The narrative doesn’t shy away from this; incidents of discrimination against Ada are mentioned more than once throughout the book. And though she’s got a quiet strength, she is also allowed to be vulnerable and hurt by what she endures. She is also in a steady relationship with a black boy, Charlie, a musician who is several times described as Soft and Sweet. Patient, sensible, methodical, and reliable, Ada is a steady presence.

Then we have Corinne Wells, the opposite of Ada in so many ways. Corinne is white, wealthy, loud, impulsive, and sarcastic. She has a little bit of a chip on her shoulder, but it makes her endearing. She rushes into things headfirst and doesn’t often think things through – she leaves that to Ada, her best friend. The girls’ bond was so wonderful to read about – they love and support each other wholly. One thing in particular I liked was that Corinne’s privilege over Ada was alluded to several times throughout the book, and Corinne was, in a way, called out (and calls herself out) for various microagressions.

Another character is Saint, a young gay man who takes some time to find his courage (not to “come out” or anything). There’s Gabriel Stone, a terse, seemingly aloof guard who develops into a love interest, but is given his own backstory (he reminds me a little bit of Grant Ward, but I digress). There’s James and Madeline Gretsky, a delightful married couple who run a theater, only James is in love with Saint and his marriage is one of convenience – for Madeline. There’s Eva Carson, who is a minor character, but also the head of a gang and shines like the moon on a cloudless night.

Then there’s the families of all these characters! Ordinarily, in YA, parents and/or families are dead, nonexistent, or flatly written. Not so in Iron Cast. Though Ada’s father is in prison, her mother features prominently. Corinne’s family is initially presented as your typical wealthy white snobs, but towards the end Corinne’s mother is shown to have independent political opinions and to be much more perceptive than Corinne has given her credit for. Corinne’s older brother, Phillip, is also initially presented as a stereotypical, power-hungry white man, but his layers are peeled away to reveal a compassionate brother who loves his sister dearly.

And on and on and on! There are a lot of characters in this book but they all stood out to me so clearly I felt like I had known them all my life. Every single one of them is vivid and memorable, and uplift what is an otherwise somewhat dull plot. Even as I was reading about Corinne and Ada simply talking to each other or going to dinner parties, I was enjoying myself, because I had so quickly come to care about these characters.

So: the plot. Well, it definitely had the potential to be exciting, but I’m not sure what happened. Ada and Corinne are hemopaths, which means they have the power to craft illusions using words or songs (or other forms of art). It’s certainly an interesting and original magic system, but for some reason it never really grabbed me. Hemopathy is illegal in Boston and hemopaths are being persecuted left and right – by “ironmongers” who deliver vigilante terror, by HPA agents who arrest them, and by doctors who want to perform experiments on them. Ada and Corinne are caught up in some of these dangers, but the way the plot is structured makes it difficult to keep your attention for very long. However, as I said, the characters make it compelling, and admittedly, there are some good twists and turns throughout to keep you engaged!

Overall, a solid little book! I will definitely be reading whatever Destiny Soria writes next.