My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars
I should begin by saying that I read And I Darken after its sequel Now I Rise, which definitely shifted my perspective on it, making me process it more as a prequel in many respects. It didn’t detract from the reading experience much, considering that the novel is historical fiction, so the bare bones of the plot can already be worked out simply by doing a Wikipedia search for Vlad the Impaler or Mehmed the Conqueror. In some ways, I got a better appreciation of character development knowing what these personalities would eventually become.
Most of what I said in my review of Now I Rise still applies. I do feel that compared to its sequel, the first book emphasises plot a little more and is slightly weaker in terms of character exploration. It’s still easily balanced in favour of the latter, though, considering how strongly Now I Rise focuses on delving into the nuances of relationships and human nature. Normally, I’d think it pretentious to say that a book comments on the massive complexity comprising “human nature”, but the Conqueror’s Saga really is one of those few series worthy of the description.
After reading both books, I’m convinced that Lada is like no other YA protagonist of our times. She has a streak of ruthlessness that is every bit as compelling as it is unique. In psychological terms she might be considered a sociopath, although with how muddy these diagnoses can get, I’m hesitant to dub her as such. Yet she’s neither hedonistic nor sadistic–she doesn’t enjoy the infliction of pain, and her fledgling principles get stronger with every passing day, on their way to the populist views of the second book. Lada is not someone I would like in real life, and absolutely the last person I’d want to follow, but she’s nothing if not a character I can empathise with. She wouldn’t want your pity, but you might end up pitying her anyway. Her inability to feel any love other than her toxic love is a tragedy in of itself: Her love for Radu, I suspect, is rooted solely in the fact that he is her brother and not because of who he is himself. And her love for Mehmed, which I commented more on in my other review, is simply a projection of her most prized traits.
As for Radu, okay, I’ll admit it: I didn’t like how soft he was at the beginning. I can see why some people were annoyed with that. At a few moments, he behaved so naïvely that I found it hard to believe. But his jealousy of Lada is every bit as relatable as Lada’s own struggles. Of course, the trope of an envious younger sibling is no stranger to the genre, but here it stings especially hard because Lada is a girl–an angle that’s rarely the case in history, where it’s almost always a man coveting the power of his brother figure.
Mehmed, in comparative terms, had the weakest character development of the trio. Sometimes I sensed tiny inconsistencies in how he behaved from one chapter to another. It’s particularly difficult to parse his personality because he has no POV chapters, so we have to rely on Lada and Radu’s very different (and often unreliable) perspectives of the same person. I was surprised to realise that he’s actually younger than Lada, when I read the sequel believing him to be older. That’s probably on me again for succumbing to tropes, and good on the novel for subverting them, just like it delightfully does to pretty much every convention regarding the teenaged heroine.