Nope. Not happy at all. And what makes this doubly hard is that I had such high hopes for this book, as the author has written two other books that I love (In the Shadows with Jim DiBartolo and Illusions of Fate(. I genuinely don't want to hurt authors in my reviews. But I do have a question: why? Why? Why? Why? Why? WHY?
The book that's causing me to go on the fritz is And I Darken, Kiersten White's newest book.
It's actually straight historical fiction with a genderflipped twist--no paranormal elements here. And maybe that's why it didn't work? Or maybe the fact that it is basically a book-long introduction to the rest of the trilogy. Or maybe the fact that it's a year-by-year account of two kids growing up and generally being mean to each other. I read about 30% of my eARC and it seriously felt like an entire book. I had my Homer Simpson drool face on.
I couldn't believe it. How could a story with such a fun premise--Vlad the Impaler as Lada the Impaler (GIRL DRACULA HELLO YES!)--be so entirely mind-numbing? Why do I feel bitter about the time I've spent reading this?
Oh, right, because nothing. Happens. At all. Nothing of note, I mean. The Wikipedia entry for Vlad the Impaler is far more interesting than this book. Actually, watching glacial movement would be less glacial than this book.
So many promises are made here: edgy, bloody, violent, bloody, anti-heroine, bloody. I get the anti-heroine part of it, but if you want to do full-on edgy violent YA, then bloody well commit! Having Lada slash a couple people with her knife, witness a very sanitized version of an impalement, and threaten to eat someone's tongue (no, not like that. You saucy minx!) does not a gritty, brutal book make. Please see Daniel Kraus and Rick Yancey for guts and gore well done. But let me back up here and give you the background of this girl-Dracula.
Vlad II Dracul awaits the birth of his first legitimate son. He's already got a bastard (and back then, how many rulers didn't?), but he needs someone who has a direct claim on the throne of Wallachia (this is not really how it works but more on that later). To his extreme disappointment, his wife gives birth to a girl. A squalling, worthless girl. In mockery, he names her "Ladislav," meaning "one who commands with glory" or "glorious." Ha ha ha, dad Vlad, you are soooo funny. About a year later, his very unhappy wife gives birth to another child, a boy named Radu. Radu's main ability in life is to be super adorable, while Lada grows up to be an ugly, thin child with a fierce disposition and propensity for biting. More than anything, Lada desires her father's approval. She learns that cruelty and a lack of compassion are what get you ahead in life, and imposes this world view on everyone around her, including her little brother, whom she suggests be thrown out of a window, and the nursemaid's son, Bogdan.
Eventually, Lada realizes that her father is not the awesome guy she's made him out to be. This epiphany occurs when he takes them to the ruler of the Ottoman Empire to remain there as hostages in exchange for the Ottomans not totally sacking Wallachia. (This actually happened to Vlad and Radu in real life, so this is accurate). Once Lada gets her period, they plop her in the harem and wait to marry her off, but then that suddenly doesn't happen because the sultan's son is amused by Lada's spunk and decides to make her and Radu his companions. Radu falls in love with Mehmed and Islam, while Lada tries to hold out for Wallachia. But then Mehmed starts paying her attention, and it's all tingly bits and kisses because there must be a love triangle in here. Ughhhhh.
Then, at the very end of the book, she leaves the Ottomans to go rule Wallachia. Which means that in books two and three we will actually get to the impaling, conquering, deposing, and dying bits. You know, the good stuff. Literally this entire book is the two kiddos getting an education and moping about not being at home and having a sucky dad and trying not to have Stockholm Syndrome. That's it. I mean, from what I read of it. I skimmed the ending too and decided we could have gotten here in like 15 chapters. What is with this trilogy obsession? I'd rather have one well-written, tightly edited book about a female Vlad the Impaler than three books of droning on and on about everything that ever happened in the history of ever.
This is one of those reviews where I have to make a list of all the things that bothered me because I cannot be coherent. Here we go.
1. Lada's name is so bizarre. I do not speak Romanian, but I do know from my rudimentary studies of how both Slavic and Romance languages work (yes, Romanian is a Romance language. Surprise!) that Ladislav is a boy's name. Ladislava would be a girl. So ... why did Vlad give his daughter a boy's name? Why did no one question this? (NOTE: I am reading this in ARC format so it's very possible that this is corrected in the final version of the story). Why didn't the author name her Vlada? That's a legitimate feminine form of Vlad. Another early reviewer also pointed out that "lada" means "crate" in Romanian so ... what a weird nickname.
2. Lada and Radu's relationship. This was overly complicated. I understand the idea that Lada is supposed to be nasty and unlikable, and that her way of caring for her brother is to treat him like dirt, but in the beginning of the book, it seems as though she truly does hate him. Then, she suddenly realizes she'd do anything to keep him safe and suddenly he is the weapon her enemies use against her. What? She despises him for his weakness but at the same time can't imagine life without him. Radu, for his part, has this creepy hero-worship for his sister but definitely doesn't want to share Mehmed with her.
3. Mehmed and Lada's relationship. Obviously, this is a fictional retelling of the actual Vlad, Radu, and Mehmed's time together. Many sources state that Mehmed and Radu were lovers. Radu did end up marrying a noblewoman and having kids, but that doesn't mean this relationship doesn't exist. But because, in this version, Vlad is Lada, there has to be some sort of love triangle and so White drops Mehmed's interest in Radu (for now, at least) and switches it to Lada, thus causing weird sexual tension between Lada and Radu. I would have been more interested in Lada had she continued with her single-minded ferocity and not done the whole "Ah, but I am weak now that I have loved a man!" thing.
4. The plot and pacing. Of the first, there is none, and of the second, we need much more. The entire book is about Lada and Radu growing up, first in Wallachia, then as hostages in the Ottoman Court. And nothing. Happens. At. All. There's the odd impaling, or some weird side trip to some random summer castle (you know you've made it as a World Ruler if you've got summer and winter palaces), but nothing that feels like it's moving the story along. Instead, we're drifting.
And I know that authors don't control the artwork, but the cover for Australia/New Zealand makes me a little uncomfortable.
Mostly, I am angry because this could have been so good. It could have been a longer novel (NOT a trilogy) wherein things actually happened. Fancy that. I would recommend Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian for a novel with an interesting take on Vlad the Impaler. Someone recently commented on Twitter about how Stoker's Dracula had no point or plot or anything (sorry, did we read the same book???) but even if you subscribe to that theory, a lot more happens in Dracula than And I Darken. I mean, at least you get social commentary on repressed Victorian sexuality, which is always a bonus. Wait, is that just me?
I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.