Source: ARC via NetGalley. Thank you Delacorte Press for providing me with an e-copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
Genre: historical YA.
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.
Well, I suspect I’ll be a bit of a black sheep with this one. I saw some very positive reviews already (I haven’t read them yet because I wanted to write mine first) and it seems like mostly everyone liked this novel a lot! However, I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequel, sadly.
Let’s do the positive side first, though, it’s always important to give credit where it’s due. The writing is great. The main reason I requested this ARC was that I really enjoyed White’s Illusions of Fate – though I somehow never managed to review it here. Something about her style appeals to me, so I might give her books another chance – just not the sequel to this one.
Also, the historical setting was very convincing and well researched. So if you’re into historical fiction (not historical romance, mind you!), you’d do well to give this one a go. I don’t know whether you’re aware – but Turks (of the Ottoman Empire) invaded what is now Slovenia, too, when they were trying to reach Vienna at some point. And they took Slovenian boys as Janissaries as well. Not as many as in other Balkan nations, to be sure, but we have remnants of their language in some expressions and fortified churches on tops of hills where people fled when the warning fires burned. So it was an interesting historical period to read about, one that hasn’t been very popular in recent years. I liked that they weren’t necessarily presented as invaders, too – the author took care to be very, very neutral and thorough.
But I disliked both the plot and the characters, which are probably the most important aspects of a story for me, so the setting and the writing didn’t make much of a difference in the final rating.
The main problem I had with these two crucial elements is that a) nothing good happens and b) there are no likable characters. And this is a problem for me, especially in YA. I’m not saying all YA books (or all books in general) should have a happy ending, far from it. In fact, I enjoy a dark story from time to time. But I feel like there has to be some hope, some moment of happiness, even if it’s crushed and stomped on in the end. I have to say that this is probably the most depressing book I’ve read in a while – and I’ve read books that made me cry, they just weren’t so dark.
It also doesn’t help that the historical period this story is set in was very bloody and uncertain. While the portrayal of the roles of women, for example, was very authentic, and I was impressed by White’s refusal to romanticize the lives of sultan’s concubines, I wish that there was something bright to look forward to. But there wasn’t and I was left with a profound sense of dread of what will happen in the sequel.
As for the characters, I couldn’t sympathize with any of them. Lada (the reimagining of Vlad the Impaler), the girl protagonist of the story, is twisted and cruel. Radu, her brother, goes from a pitiful boy to a scheming young man – he’d have been a good character to root for if he wasn’t so absolutely spineless. And Mehmed, the sultan’s heir, is an entitled little shit most of the time, even if he recognizes that Lada and Radu are very important in his life. I did not like how their relationships developed from childhood through adolescence, I didn’t like the lengths they went to. And if Lada managed to carve out a semblance of power for herself in a world where women were viewed as property, she was too selfish to ever think about improving the lives of other women with this newfound strength. *spoiler in white* Also, Mehmed’s professions of affection towards Lada were hollow and downright insulting when he continued visiting the harem and having babies. I also thought I’d like the dynamic of this unlucky love triangle (Radu is hopelessly in love with Mehmed), but it only served to make all three of them act even worse towards each other, which was really disappointing. *end of spoiler*
I just wished someone was good enough to go against the rules of the society, to rebel not just for the sake of him/herself but to help others, too. *sigh* So you see, it was very hard to care for the fates of these people when they cared so little for the fates of those around them. Does this make sense? Again, I’m not saying that all YA protagonists have to be likeable, I love a good villain story, but there has to be someone to balance the scales.
All in all, as you can see this wasn’t a story for me. I won’t be reading the sequel because I simply can’t justify reading about unlikable characters when I have so many other, more attractive books to read. Go check out Mogsy’s and Alicia’s reviews, though, their tastes are usually very similar to mine so I’m curious to read what appealed to them in this novel!
Have you read And I Darken? What did you think? What about other books by Kiersten White?
Do you like dark stories or do you prefer at least a drop of sunshine in every tale?
I’d love to hear from you!