My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Length: 416 pages
Release date: 10 July 2018
Haunted by the sacrifices he made in Constantinople, Radu is called back to the new capital. Mehmed is building an empire, becoming the sultan his people need. But Mehmed has a secret: as emperor, he is more powerful than ever . . . and desperately lonely. Does this mean Radu can finally have more with Mehmed . . . and would he even want it?
Lada’s rule of absolute justice has created a Wallachia free of crime. But Lada won’t rest until everyone knows that her country’s borders are inviolable. Determined to send a message of defiance, she has the bodies of Mehmed’s peace envoy delivered to him, leaving Radu and Mehmed with no choice. If Lada is allowed to continue, only death will prosper. They must go to war against the girl prince.
But Mehmed knows that he loves her. He understands her. She must lose to him so he can keep her safe. Radu alone fears that they are underestimating his sister’s indomitable will. Only by destroying everything that came before–including her relationships–can Lada truly build the country she wants.
Claim the throne. Demand the crown. Rule the world.
“And that was why she would win in the end. Because she would offer up everything on the altar of sacrifice, so long as she kept her country.”
It’s been a long year’s wait, but 2018’s 13th most anticipated YA novel as voted on a Goodreads list has at last arrived. And having finished it I can at last say: What a phenomenal finale.
It was more than a year ago that I picked up Now I Rise at the bookshop and was immediately hooked. It was only after finishing the second book that I went back and read And I Darken, but the unconventional reading order hasn’t dulled my enjoyment of this bloody, treacherous and exceptional series. As one character memorably tells Lada Dracul before leaving her for the last time: It has been an honour.
The Conqueror’s Saga has always been in that challenging situation of on one hand needing to bow to 15th-century history, and on the other desiring to carve its own path as a subversive and feminist retelling. This series was never going to satisfy everyone–many reviewers object to the basic premise of rewriting Vlad Țepeș as a young woman and protagonist in a non-critical, frequently positive light that impressionable readers may be tempted to imitate.
Personally, I believe Bright We Burn has pulled off the high-wire act of balancing its two obligations of realism and feminist indulgence. It makes a strong statement that heroines don’t need to be beautiful or nice, but through the voice of Radu remains judgmental of Lada’s cruel impulses (of which there are many, because this is still the inspiration for Dracula we’re talking about). You can read a blog post by Kiersten White offering insight into her thought process; I think it’s very much worth reading alongside Bright We Burn. In any case, I don’t yet see anyone impaling their enemies because of this book.
Lada is a vehicle of fantasy. Sadistic and vindictive, her character speaks to that little bit in us that just wants to give it our all and never worry about the consequences. Even though Radu and Mehmed are well-developed, Lada is the pièce de resistance of White’s work. Watching her interactions with other characters unfold, trying to analyse the workings of such a brutal mind, is a large part of the uninhibited fun that alt-history holds.
Another part, of course, is the large-scale carnage that can be carried out with the knowledge that it resides safely in the realm of the imagination. Bright We Burn is the moment we’ve all been waiting for, the culmination of a trilogy of build-up as Lada goes toe-to-toe against the greatest empire of her time. Outnumbered and outgunned, she embarks on a terrific campaign of scorched earth warfare whose ugly realities White elucidates without flinching.
Overall, plot elements stick closer to history than I expected. Vlad Țepeș did actually wage a campaign against Mehmed II and the Ottoman Empire in a similar way that Lada does, and some battles are pulled straight from history. White plays fast and loose with the timeline–namely compressing years’ events into months–so that Lada can be 19 instead of 30-something in her final showdown with Mehmed, and puts a creative spin on various interactions, but for the most part keeps her novel based on the true story rather than inspired by it.
The ending in particular is where White’s storytelling expertise shines through. In the blog post linked above she mentions that the ending changed in the process of drafting. I don’t doubt it. The amount of thought that has been put into such a pivotal ending as this, which had the potential to make or break the entire series, is evident in its narrative resonance. It’s a tricky scenario. Some characters “get away” with things they didn’t deserve. Some characters draw the short end of the stick. Some behave in ways that don’t fit the moral framework of their historical period and are ridiculed for it.
How to conclude then?
If I could choose, I would opt for exactly Kiersten White’s ending, precisely because I wouldn’t have predicted it in my wildest dreams. I obviously won’t spoil it, but I will say that this was my favourite thing about it: Compared to the first two books, there’s a lot less focus on Mehmed. The story is brought back to Lada and Radu, the siblings with whom it began.
Bright We Burn is considerably shorter than either of its predecessors, and although there’s a whole host of other considerations, I do find that this is one of the main reasons I’ve finally given Kiersten White five stars. The slow pace and padding that occasionally interrupted those two books is gone, and the only thing left is what we came for–fire and blood and death, and just maybe the slightest glimpse of redemption.
Other reviews in this series: