“And I Darken” by Kiersten White

And I Darken | The Conqueror’s Saga #1 | ISBN 9780552573740 | Corgi, 2016 | 1 out of 5 Stars | DNF (skim-read the last 100 pages)

“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.”

ELLA’S REVIEW

This book can go choke. I’ve seen people sing praise for it basically everywhere, calling it a suspenseful diverse read and I’m not sure if I read the same book but „And I Darken“ was neither suspenseful nor was it diverse. It was classically fake diverse. It’s representation of LGBTQ people and Islam is harmful. I read most of the book and I skimmed the rest because I wanted to be sure before I started ranting but Kiersten White literally did what I thought she would not do and I’ll need to talk about that in detail or I’ll be grumpy for the rest of the week. I’m angry at “And I Darken” and its author and I know this is an unpopular opinion because everyone adores this book but I can’t help it. I hated it.

NO ONE IN HISTORY WAS GAY!!1!!!ELEVEN!!!

Before we get into this, let me make one thing clear: I went into this book with a bit of a different mindset than most other readers. I’m a historian and I specialise in Eastern European History. I’m of Eastern European ancestry myself. I didn’t pick up “And I Darken” because of the exciting blurb but because I’m interested in Eastern European history. It’s a topic that’s quite important to me for the reasons stated above. I’ve been fascinated by the story of Vlad Drăculea since I was a child and I was so excited to see a YA historical novel about that story. My excitement soon turned into frustation though. It’s mostly to do with the portrayal of Mehmed II. and Radu, both important historical figures.

If you ever decide to learn more about the Ottoman Empire, you’ll find that Mehmed II., better known as Mehmed the Conqueror, was one of its most important rulers. He’s the man who brought about the fall of Constantinople aged only 21, conquering half of Europe whilst he was at it. He was also very probably attracted to men in some way. This is something historians have been fighting about for decades like they always do. There are sources from Greece, Italy and the Byzantine empire that talk freely of Mehmed’s attraction to men – and of his relationship with Radu, brother of Vlad Drăculea. These sources exist. Can I be one hundred percent sure that Mehmed was really attracted to men? No, I can’t, of course I can’t. Maybe the people saying the sources are just Western propaganda are right. But in my opinion at least it’s way more likely that there’s a good amount of truth to them like there is with Alexander the Great too or Frederick II. of Prussia.

Old white straight historians hate having to admit that queer people might have done something important, that an important historical figure might have not been straight so they argue from that point of view when they decry each and every source as “denigration”. You might wanna keep that in mind for later. But anyways, why am I telling you this? Because what Kiersten White does in “And I Darken” is basically the same thing. Look, it doesn’t even matter if Mehmed was really attracted to men or if he wasn’t. White’s portrayal of Mehmed II. as some hyper-heterosexual ladies’ man who would never think of finding a man attractive is super problematic no matter what. I’ll explain, don’t worry. Just stay with me here.

ALTERNATIVE HISTORY MORE LIKE: A TIRED EXCUSE FOR BIGOTRY

The thing is, this is alternative history. It isn’t about Vlad Drăculea, it is about Lada Drăculea. It’s supposedly a look at what the world might have looked like had Vlad Drăculea been a woman. I was intrigued by that. I really was. But this book is so bad, guys. It’s so horribly bad. This is not alternative history in any way, this is pure fantasy with some historical names thrown in and I’m frankly so angry about this. So okay, it’s alternative history and White decided to portray Mehmed II. as straight. So far, so questionable but it gets so much worse. If you’re thinking: “Okay, we don’t know, he might have been straight after all!” now, let me tell you this:

She also reduces Radu to a whimpering, stupid, naïve little boy. The thing is Radu was a warrior in real life. He was a great politician and ruler. He was fierce. Radu in this book is fragile and scared, always crying, always depending on big sister Lada to come rescue him. If I had taken a shot everytime this boy cries, I would have ended up in hospital with alcohol poisoning before the ten percent mark. Radu then falls in love with Mehmed alright and Kiersten White turns him into this tragic gay martyr who lets Mehmed cry on his shoulder all the time but who can’t tell Mehmed he loves him so he has to suffer in silence. Mehmed, on the other hand, falls head over heels in love with Lada. She’s the love of his life and he keeps whining to his “best friend” Radu about how he can’t have her whilst Radu has to be the strong one and surpress his love for Mehmed in favour of comforting him whenever he whines about how much he loves Radu’s sister. This is so gross. So cruel.

Okay, here’s the problem: Not only does Kiersten White’s portrayal of Radu play right into the harmful stereotype of the weak, scared, effeminate gay man, she also decides to portray Mehmed as straight and therefore making Radu’s love for him hopeless and tragic. This would be bad enough in any other book but this is based in history and there is a very good chance, a very, very good chance, that in real life Radu and Mehmed were long-term lovers. And White knows that. She must know it, not only because it will have come up in her research, but also because she made the choice to make Radu gay, probably influenced by the stories about Mehmed and Radu being lovers. And this is what I’m getting at here:

This was a choice, make no mistake. White made the choice to ignore the evidence for Mehmed’s and Radu’s relationship. She made the conscious choice to make Radu gay and then she made the conscious choice to ignore that he might have been in a relationship with Mehmed II. in favour of having Mehmed fall in love with a fictional girl, therefore plunging Radu into despair and sorrow. So… how is that okay? How is that good LGBTQ representation? It isn’t. It’s fake representation. It’s a cop-out. She wants the credit for including a gay character but she won’t let him have a real romance. She hands his love interest over to Lada so that Lada and Mehmed can have a totally straight and totally bland “doomed” love story. That’s gross.

I usually like the idea of alternative history. I liked the concept of this. What if Vlad Drăculea had been a woman? But if you wanna do that, you have to go through with it. Make Vlad a woman and explore social and political attitudes towards gender all you want but keep the rest of the story true to actual Romanian history. I mean, what is the point when you don’t? What’s the point of labelling this book an alternative history of Vlad Drăculea when it’s not? This is Fantasy, very losely based on real history. There is not much real history in this “historical novel” at all. White didn’t just erase a part of queer history in favour of a straight romance, she also changed everything else she didn’t like.

Radu and Vlad were six years apart in age in real life, in this book it’s one year. Historical people get erased and replaced with other people. Bogdan for instance was a real person, but he sure as hell wasn’t Vlad’s age and he also wasn’t the son of a maid – He was Vlad’s uncle and a prince of Moldavia but whatever, right? She also changed the name of Vlad’s and Radu’s mother for no apparent reason. Was Cneajna too hard to spell or what? People marry people that didn’t exist in real life, their real spouses aren’t mentioned once. This is not how alternative history works, by the way. It’s so lazy! Wanna write a historical novel but don’t like the actual history? Just say it’s alternative history and do whatever you want, it doesn’t have to make sense! She made conscious choices here, I can’t stress this enough. Remember it for later, okay?

LET’S SEASON OUR HOMOPHOBIA WITH SOME ISLAMOPHOBIA

This book would have been a major flop for me at this point anyway but there’s more. Main character Ladislav, Lada for short, was horrible. She was self-centered and cruel and not in the way you want your warrior princess to be. She seemed to enjoy hurting people and all she really cared about was herself. Authors, please listen up for a minute here: Having your female main character hurt others and be violent every chance she gets doesn’t make her a strong female character, okay? Lada was still pining for Mehmed the whole time, doing everything for Mehmed, never for herself. She was obnoxious in her self-righteousness, always knowing better, always having to be right. Lada also hates every other woman in this book for being a woman. She detests women. She hates everything stereotypically female. How is this a feminist book? It’s about a self-righteous horrible violent girl hating women. Wow, slow clap.

There’s something else Lada hates. Lada hates Islam. We’re supposed to root for her while she hates Islam and outright says so all the time. Look at this shit:

They passed the mosque, swirling minarets reaching up to pierce heaven itself. She wished they would–wished they would poke a hole through the sky and shower God’s wrath on this whole city. Then they would see whose god was real.

What the actual fuck? How is this okay in 2017? How is everyone okay with this, even calling Lada admirable? “But Ella, this is how Vlad the Impaler was for real!”, you might say. And I might say: Yeah okay, now you care about historical accuracy? Kiersten White threw historical accuracy to the wind a long time ago, my friends. There was absoluely no need for this kind of Islamophobia and yet here we are, expected to root for Lada who hates everything about Islam and thinks Christianity is totes better. Another conscious choice, yes? This is not a mistake.

THIS SHOULD HAVE BEEN FANTASY

I could say more but I feel like it would be a waste of everyone’s time. These are the main reasons “And I Darken” was a complete flop for me. In conclusion… I’m angry. What Kiersten White does is take an important part of Romanian history, revise it to her liking and twist it until it fits her epic Fantasy plot. It’s clear she absolutely has no respect for Romanian history at all. Or for queer people for that matter: She portrays Radu as some weak and tragic gay accessoire, when she had the chance to show us the real Radu, who was fascinating in his own right, and make him and Mehmed an interesting couple rooted in real history. She gives us a heroine that’s supposed to be strong and empowering but who is really just a violent self-centred girl hating other women and wanting to prove herself to the important men so much she doesn’t even realise they don’t care about her at all.

Let’s bring this back to alternative history and conscious decisions now. All of this must have been conscious decisions on White’s part and saying “Maybe she didn’t know” really won’t cut it this time. She did her research, that much is clear. And then she decided which parts to use and which to disregard. She must have known that Mehmed and Radu having been lovers was very likely. She decided to ignore it. She decided to include blatant islamophobia on her protagonist’s part though, something else that is rooted in real history but could have been foregone since this is alternative history. And I think we need to talk about this. None of this is an accident.

I think most readers raving about this book didn’t read it as a historical novel but as epic Fantasy – which it should have been. They will not know a lot about Romanian medieval history or Mehmed II. or even about Vlad the Impaler himself. And that’s okay. The thing is, I haven’t seen one review pointing out that Mehmed probably liked men in real life and how that’s excluded from “And I Darken” completely. And that’s okay too. You don’t know this. Even I don’t know everything about this and I’m a historian. But White knew. She must’ve known, since she obviously did her research, and she decided to ignore it in favour of your usual doomed love story between a boy and girl. The same way she decided to cut other parts of the real history or change it out for something she liked better but still included the Islamophobia. How is this not gross? There is no way this wasn’t intentional.

What’s shaken me up so much about this is how this could even happen in 2016. Look, I was so sure it wouldn’t happen. I was so sure “And I Darken” would be great. I had no doubt that White wouldn’t shy away from portraying Radu and Mehmed in a relationship or at least not, you know, straightwash the whole thing by making Mehmed Lada’s hyper-straight love interest, because this book is from 2016 and “We Need Diverse Books” is a thing and people have been talking about the importance of positive representation of LGBTQ and people of colour so much I thought everyone would have gotten it by now. I even told Ludovica: “Hey, it says here in the blurb there will be a love triangle but I’m sure she’ll let Radu have Mehmed, haha.” I said that like the naive idiot I am somtimes. I read too many good historicals lately, I watched too many good period dramas that don’t erase queer history. But then White reminded me that we still have a long way to go when it comes to LGBTQ representation in fiction and the acknowledgment of LGBTQ history in general.

THE  EPITOME OF AMERICAN ENTITLEMENT

What makes me so angry is that White is perfectly safe here. It’s just Romanian history, right? It’s not like anyone knows how it really was like, right? Nobody fucking cares, it’s just Romania after all, right? We can praise her for including a gay character, no matter how stereotypical and removed from the real Radu he is, right?! I don’t think so. This isn’t real diversity. This is LGBTQ erasure, sexism, racism and islamophobia disguised as diversity. Look, I don’t know where White will take this series in the next books and I won’t find out. Maybe she’ll give Radu his happy ending or whatever, even though it’s unlikely. I don’t care. She has made far too many mistakes in “And I Darken” that she can’t fix, no matter what happens in the next book.

“And I Darken” is the epitome of American entitlement in my opinion. Hey, let’s just take this small European country’s history and twist it into a run-of-the-mill YA Fantasy because why the hell not? It’s just Romania, lol, who cares about Romania? She could’ve done what Leigh Bardugo did in her Grisha books: She could have created an epic Fantasy world based on late Medieval Romania and we would all have been fine. It would have been the respectful thing to do. But she went and tore into a country’s history, picked out the parts she liked and kicked the rest to the curb. And I can’t shake the feeling that to a lot of readers, this Wallachia, this Romania, it’s not even a real place. It’s a Fantasy place in a Fantasy book because that’s how Kiersten White writes about it. She makes it into something not real, something not important enough to be treated like a real thing. She turns important figures from European history, important events and people, into a cheap YA adventure romance twisted to her liking. Imagine someone doing this to American history. Imagine the uproar.

So here we are at last. This book is hugely popular and my rant won’t make anyone reconsider how good this representation really is or if White’s treatment of Romanian history is really okay but that’s alright. I’m putting this out there anyway, just to cleanse myself from the experience of having read it. Into the trash this book goes.

The thing is, we’ve seen the same shit done to the same story before. Remember “Dracula Untold?” Different stories, same problems. I’ll keep waiting for a good novel about Vlad the Impaler, Radu cel Frumos and Mehmed II. now. One that, y’know, includes some queer history instead of erasing it, isn’t racist and sexist and doesn’t trample all over an important part of another country’s history for the lols. Oh, and by the way: Ladislav is a boy’s name, Kiersten White. It should have been Ladislava. In fact, it should have been Vladislava because Ladislava isn’t even Romanian. But anyways. Whatever, right? Good riddance.

About Ella

Ella is a writer and historian by day and a reader by night time. She lives by the North Sea and has managed to fill all empty spaces in her small apartment with books. She's 24.

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