“And I Darken” isn’t completely interested in accurately portraying history

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Now, you’re probably thinking, “Not another young adult novel.” And I’m sorry, but I can’t seem to help myself when it comes to this genre. It’s a drug and I’m an addict. Next week I’ll try to mix it up but until then, let’s get into “And I Darken.”

Kiersten White’s 2016 novel “And I Darken” is set in the 15th century Ottoman Empire. Lada and Radu are pawns in a political game. They are the children of the prince of Wallachia, a country under control by the Ottomans. Lada and Radu are long-time prisoners by the Ottomans to secure their father’s obedience.

During their imprisonment, they befriend the son to the sultan, Mehmed, but that friendship drags them into a world they don’t know, and in Lada’s case, don’t like. In order to protect Mehmed, the two siblings will sacrifice the freedom they are just beginning to receive and each other.

Technically, and I mean, technically, “And I Darken” falls into the category of historical fiction. I don’t read a whole lot of historical fiction because it tends to lull me to sleep, but this novel was different. Since I’m basically clueless about the history of the Middle East, it was enlightening to read about some of the history that White gives us throughout the novel.

I picked up a lot of information about Middle Eastern cultural practices from Lada and Radu’s story. Radu discovering Islam spoke to me because unlike the representation of the religion in the media, it’s portrayed so peacefully in “And I Darken.” Prayer was a beautiful thing to Radu, and it gave him a sense of calm and security when he normally didn’t have those emotions.

The oppression of women in the Middle East becomes a stark image as we watch Lada struggle with who she is versus who society wants her to be. Lada isn’t a girl who likes to wear dresses. She doesn’t like needlework. She likes to wear trousers and beat up any man who challenges her.

While all women, regardless of whether they lived or when, suffered from some sort of oppression by men, this novel includes the specific expectations the Ottoman Empire had for women. Harems were common in the empire, but not so common in a place like Britain, so Lada must fight against marrying someone who has several other wives or concubines.

“And I Darken” isn’t specifically focused on the romance amongst the characters, but it does explore it some. I nearly fell out of my chair when I read a section that was LBGTQ+ inclusive. One of the main characters is gay. It’s freaking awesome, and the fact that I didn’t have to ask for it made it a thousand times better.

I think while a lot of research went into this book (Kiersten White is a white woman) and time went into creating Lada and Radu’s environment and story, it does fall a little short in my opinion.

I found the reaction the other characters had towards Lada completely unrealistic. 1) She gets a proper education equal to her brother’s with no resistance to the fact that she is a female. 2) She never gets punished for stepping beyond her gender. Never. 3) She’s allowed to train and hang out with male soldiers.

This novel is set in the 15th century, and while I’m a feminist who supports strong women, Lada wouldn’t have just gone through life doing whatever she wanted. There should have been more of a struggle for her to achieve this almost equal-to-men status she has. It shouldn’t have just been given to her on a silver platter. Most women didn’t even receive an education in the time period the novel is set in. Women weren’t allowed to be alone with men without a chaperone. Like, where’s the realism?

And don’t even get me started on how White destroyed Lada’s independence. She becomes weak when she’s around Mehmed? That completely goes against her bad-girl behavior. Does she have to sacrifice her happiness to be independent? Yes, because apparently power and happiness can’t be in the same room together. Lada’s whole character goes downhill in the last half of the novel. I was extremely disappointed in the decision to give Lada a lonely and heartbreaking ending.

This last problem is small: the first half of the novel is so slow. The synopsis of the novel made me believe Lada and Radu would grow up in the Ottoman Empire, not just suddenly go there when they’re teenagers. A quarter of the novel does nothing more than just tell us who the characters between the ages of one to 12. It doesn’t set up the conflict until almost halfway into the book when it should’ve been given sooner to increase interest and clue me in to what will eventually happen.

The unrealistic situation, the ruin of Lada’s character, and the slow start really destroyed the potential “And I Darken” had. Will I finish the series? Maybe. I don’t want to waste money on a series I can’t fully get behind. Can I recommend this novel? No. There are better ones.

Camden Burris

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