[Review] And I Darken by Kiersten White

and i darkenTitle: And I Darken
Series: The Conqueror’s Saga #1
Author: Kiersten White
Release Date: 28th June 2016
My Rating: 2.5 Stars

‘Lada has a sense for power –

A princess unlike any you’ve known before; ruthlessness is the key to her survival.

the fine threads that connected everyone around her,

Her brother Radu is everything she is not: beautiful, introspective and delicate.

the way those threads could be pulled, tightened,

At first, Lada takes Mehmed for an enemy. He is, after all, son of the sultan holding her captive.

wrapped around someone until they cut off the blood supply.

Their three lives balance on a knife edge, and the ties that bind them together will be stretched to breaking point.

Or snapped entirely.’

It’s so hard to write a review on this because I have such mixed feelings! I loved the time period, it was completely fascinating but the actual writing and characterisation was deeply flawed. I’ve tried a couple of Kiersten White books now and it’s always the writing and the characters that let them down – she’s got some of the most interesting ideas in YA but doesn’t seem to have the skill to execute them well (that sounds so harsh…)

The writing style was the main thing that impeded my enjoyment of this book. It was so slow and purple without much substance. I adore a slow and atmospheric story, with a lyrical writing style – Katherine Arden, for example, does that perfectly. However, that lyrical quality to a writing style that makes slow prose delicious was missing from this, which just made the whole thing a slog. This is an almost 500 page book and it really didn’t need to be. I actually skimmed a lot of the book, just taking in the detail and not the waffle and I didn’t miss a thing.

Aside from the prose, one of the things that bugged me about the way this was written was how it jumped about so much! White seemed to write individual scenes that she had identified as important to the plot, but not link them together at all, even if there were time jumps between those scenes. One clear example was any time there was a long battle or siege, she’d write a scene and then it would jump to weeks later when there had been a lot of updates or characters had fallen ill/died. This really created a info-dumpy, telling rather than showing approach to the battles that I just hated. It made it really hard to follow, feeling disjointed and also just totally took me out of the story. It felt lazy as it allowed the author to tell the reader that something had happened to further to plot, without having to execute that plot point. It really felt like when planning she had written a bullet point list of all the plot points and scenes, and all she did when writing was write those bullet points without linking them together. I was not a fan AT ALL of this writing style, and in fact, members of my book club who I discussed this with who loved the book totally agreed about that.

Now, if the writing was bad, the characters didn’t really help much. The actual principles of
interesting historical setting really drew me in, but it’s the characters that should hold my attention throughout and they just couldn’t do that. The personalities of the main two characters, Lada and Radu, were so interesting. Lada is a woman growing up in a man’s world, desperate to prove herself to her father – but starts to discover that her father isn’t a man worthy of her effort. She’s badass and strong and a bit scary. She should have been great. Radu is equally interesting – he is a soft, gentle boy in a world that demands strength and ruthlessness. His intelligence and cunning are what make him a force to be reckoned with, but these qualities are not valued in men during this period. He is also gay in a time when any sexuality other than straight is seen as alien and wrong.

These characters sounds great, right? However, again, I just had issues with the execution. At no point did I get into these characters head and really FEEL their personalities. I didn’t connect with them. We were told their thoughts when we needed them and told their personalities, but I never really got into their heads enough to understand their motivations. I feel like characters are only great if they’re written well enough that they take on a life of their own – you can feel their personalities so strongly that no one needs to tell you what they’re thinking – you know how they would feel about things. But these characters just felt like they were entirely written in flashbacks – like we were *told* everything they’d done and how they felt about it, rather than being there with them and feeling it. Really, it just matched the lacking feel of the rest of the writing.

I did really appreciate the strength of Lada’s character and the feminist tones to this book. That was what really did draw me in despite the flaws in the writing. While I didn’t feel 100% connected to Lada and like I could get into her head, I really loved how she stood up for herself and fought to break the mould of what was expected of her. There’s this one quote that really shows her violence and cunning that I just adored:

“On our wedding night,” she said, “I will cut out your tongue and swallow it. Then both tongues that spoke our marriage vows will belong to me, and I will be wed only to myself. You will most likely choke to death on your own blood, which will be unfortunate, but I will be both husband and wife and therefore not a widow to be pitied.”

There was some cleverness and potential in these little moments – I wish we got more of this! Lada was cutthroat and clever, but had her shortsightedness – which was where Radu came in with his scheming and sympathetic nature. It was a really beautiful familial relationship, complete with sibling bullying and arguments, but that depth that was missing would have just elevated the whole thing.

It feels incredibly harsh to say, but I feel like I would have loved this book if it was been written by someone else. All in, the time period, historical basis and the characters were excellent in principle, but just not executed to a high enough standard to make this a truly great book. Maybe Kiersten White will surprise me in the future, but I’m starting to doubt that.

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