My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Hold hands with the devil until you are both over the bridge. Or kill the devil and burn the bridge so no one can get to you.”
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. -Proverb
A princess exiled at a young age whose father is deposed and oldest brother murdered, who dreams of returning to her homeland to claim her birthright. An idealist who is determined to be just to her friends and vengeful to her enemies, who dreams of breaking the spokes on the wheel who are the current nobility of her country and establishing a realm that works for the common people. A leader-dubbed-dragon who is scorned at every turn by the same nobles who refuse to accept her based on her gender, despite her powerful army of freed slaves and willingness to shed blood. Sound familiar?
Close enough. We’re talking about Lada Dracul, prince of Wallachia and imagined female version of Vlad III Tepes, better known as Vlad the Impaler. Whatever I expected from this take on the historical figure who is best known for inspiring Count Dracula, it wasn’t the very much Daenerys Targaryen-like militant reformer that I got. Don’t get me wrong, it was a pleasant surprise, and I suspect that this Lada works out far better than a scheming, purely selfish Lada would.
I’ve heard The Conqueror’s Saga compared to Game of Thrones (just like it seems that every remotely bloody historical/fantasy/sci-fi novel is these days), but stylistically the novel reminds me more of conventional historical fiction à la The White Queen. For one, it’s 100% a character-driven novel. The plot is simply nowhere near compelling enough to stand on its own–for large swaths of the novel, it feels either like nothing much is happening, or that the same few events are happening over and over again. You really have to give Kiersten White credit for compensating entirely on the strength of her characters: Lada and Radu go through so much, develop in such fascinating ways, that it almost doesn’t matter how they get there. She manages a robust cast of supporting characters in addition to the big three, with Nazira, Cyprian, Bogdan, Nicolae, Petru, Daciana, and others all feeling like their own people.
It’s an especially nice touch how Lada and Mehmed are such perfect foils. Both are intensely ambitious, driven, and brilliant, and would be a 15th century power couple–were either one willing to compromise on the one thing that they held in greatest esteem. The fact that they never will, and are even ready to manipulate everything in their path, including each other, to attain their hearts’ desires, begs the question of whether they were truly ever in love or were only projecting their own most prized traits onto the other. What happens when two narcissists fall into obsessive love, only to realise one day that the other is more than a mirror reflection of themselves?
Radu, on the other hand, is the closest character this book has to a truly “good” person. He’s kind, compassionate, empathetic, loyal. I’m going to be honest here, I don’t understand the Radu hate. I haven’t read the first book, so maybe he did something awful there, I don’t know. But from what I’ve seen in Now I Rise he is by far the most likeable of the messy, delightfully unconventional love triangle. (I never thought I’d be happy to read a love triangle in a YA novel, but there you go.) In fact, he’s one of the most likeable characters, period. I loved how his character developed, how his beliefs were challenged and reshaped by his environment.
Without spoilers, the ending was awesome–both the literal last chapter and the series of events that led up to it. If you want my full take on it, there are spoilers below:
It’s just so poetic how Lada and Mehmed both end up achieving what they originally wanted, and feeling empty after it. Both of them have, in some way, given up part of their humanity on their way there. Lada’s had to kill and kill and kill in the name of the greater good, and although her body count is a fraction of what Mehmed’s racked up in the siege of Constantinople, there’s something infinitely more personal about her deeds. It’s in the way she interacts with Wallachians, the way she draws her own sword and takes the lives of enemies instead of merely commanding her men to do so. The final “Red Wedding” that seals her fate on the way to extremism? From a narrative perspective, I saw it coming as soon as the boyars arrived, and from a narrative perspective, it worked as well as I hoped. “Someday you will go further than I can follow,” her best friend Nicolae tells her, when she orders him to kill the boyars’ children as well. And that day is coming for the readers too, in the third book–but until then, I’ll enjoy Lada Dracul for as long as I can.