Title: And I Darken
Author: Kiersten White
Genre: Historical Fiction, Alternate History, YA
Rating: ★★☆☆☆ | 2.0
For a stretch of about 30 minutes, I thought I might actually like this novel. Imagine: a novel about Dracula, but Vladimir is Lada, and Lada is ugly, and brutal, but ultimately sympathetic. Add that to the fact that the novel was super hyped by a bunch of book bloggers whose opinions I usually trust, and I jumped into this pit like there was a feast at the bottom of it.
To its credit, there are things that it does try to do well––Lada is certainly an unconventional protagonist. She isn’t likeable and she’s unapologetic about wanting power. There’s something I love about women who want power––it’s not so much that I think it’s empowering for women to take power, because it’s really not (see: Margaret Thatcher), but because I love that girls can be fucked up pieces of shit and still be worthy of having our stories told.
And insofar as they stay in Wallachia, the story felt nuanced: Lada’s self-hatred, the internalised sexism that she displaces onto her mother, her desperation for her father’s love and her frustration at his inability to protect Wallachia from Ottoman invasion.
Past this, the book goes so quickly downhill. Even if you weren’t concerned with diversity (which if you aren’t, yuck), the writing is extremely dry. There were a few pretty lines, but they felt incredibly false and formulated, just a bunch of words strung together to sound #empowering but lacking any real understanding of oppression or true subversive potential.
And once the novel hits the Ottoman Empire…yikes.
The decision to set the novel partly in the Ottoman Empire was one that drew me to the novel. The dynamic between a Muslim Empire and a Christian tribute state is one that’s especially volatile to our modern mind, and I think we have a tendency to categorically conceive of Europe as the empire and The Rest of the World as categorically oppressed, which is untrue and a harmful way to read history. It suppresses the real effects of the imperialism of empires like the Ottoman, the Chinese, the Mongol, etc.
Yet there is something uneasy, in an era that is still impacted by and is still echoing with the shadows of Euro-American imperialism in the MENA nations, much of which is responsible for the conflicts in the region to begin with––to displace anti-imperialist discourse and anger onto the Ottoman Empire. Or maybe that’s unfair, taking the microcosm of Romania and Turkey and projecting it onto the dynamic of Western Europe and West Asia.
Even aside from that unease––and I would argue it’s a productive unease––the novel is glaringly Orientalist and homophobic even as it attempts to grapple with Orientalism and have queer representation. This is a key problem of the novel––it attempts––and it fails––again and again to do many things, but it engages in the sexism, the racism, the homophobia it wants to challenge. It wants to have its cake and eat it too, only that’s not quite how the world works.
The Ottoman Empire here is a veiled, perfumed, misty thing which lingers heavy with mystery and danger. It’s not a place, it’s a construct. The Ottoman Empire is a place of myths and religions and hidden gardens and hares, while Wallachia is a place of physicality, even as it exists for the better part of the narrative only as an idea in Lada’s mind.
The thing that bothered me the most, though, and the thing that ultimately made me DNF this novel only 50 pages from the end, is the rampant, incessant, insistent homophobia and the subtler biphobia that runs through the pages. We can debate the history, that popular history has Radu the Beautiful as the favourite of Mehmed the Conqueror, that Mehmed the Conqueror was the one who courted Radu’s favours But this isn’t history, it’s alt-history, where Vlad the Impaler is a girl, and thus she is the one who gains the attentions of Mehmed, while Radu is left pining for an impossible love. A trope––a boring trope at that––and an erasure.
The image of the pining queer boy is one that’s a dime a dozen in fiction, and it’s a trope that serves to say to queer people that our feelings are unreciprocated, not normal, always suppressed, a burden to ourselves and others. In this world, bisexuality is not a thing (even though both Mehmed and Radu had wives and children), and queer girls exist only to wrap up other people’s plotlines. And when you are the object of queer love, as Radu is for a soldier ten years older than him who often acts like a mentor for him, it is repulsive and uncomfortable, even predatory.
I shouldn’t have to go into the idea of why the idea of a predatory older man grooming a young boy is a violent and regressive trope, right? I shouldn’t? Have to say this? Yet I don’t understand how, in the year of our lord 2016, this didn’t get caught by agents, editors, by the writer herself––even if publishing is almost 90% white and cis and straight. My only conclusion is that they either didn’t know or didn’t care, and I couldn’t say which is worse.
It’s really disheartening, really. A novel that’s getting raved about. A novel that’s supposedly diverse, but where every queer character other than Radu is incidental, where every girl other than Lada is incidental, every Muslim other than Mehmed is incidental (and Mehmed is called “the little zealot”––so the only major sympathetic Muslim character is one whose primary characteristic is his faith and religiosity and, specifically, the degree of his fundamentalism and fervor? Okay. That‘s not alarming).
The love story isn’t handled particularly well, nor are sex and sexuality. Speaking as someone from a culture of harems similar to that of the Ottoman Empire, harems are not handled well. Eunuchs are Othered, Muslims are Othered, gay people are Othered and bisexual people––for all that Mehmed and Radu may be considered by modern standards to have been bisexual in real life––doesn’t even exist as a concept. And here’s my ultimate takeaway from this novel: if all three of your protagonists are Othered by the text, where is the locus of narrative authority? Whose perspective are you telling this from? Who is meant to be reading this novel?