Source: I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review
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This book was a surprise in the best possible ways. An alternate history of Vlad the Impaler where Vlad is a girl, And I Darken is dark, brutal and vicious.
Lada is one of the strongest female characters I have read. She's living in a society where women are seen as being weak and for marrying off and bearing children. This makes Lada absolutely furious and she is determined to show that she is just as, if not more than, capable of being a soldier. She's cruel, far from being flawless and just a little bit psychotic. She isn't beautiful and she is incredibly violent. I loved everything about her. Her brother, Radu, on the other hand is the complete opposite of Lada. He's delicate, beautiful and very sensitive. Lada feels a responsibility to protect him but it also frustrates her that he can't look after himself. Their relationship is very complex from the moment Radu is born and the complexities only increase as they get older. It was completely riveting to read.
I loved the world-building and it was interesting to read about a setting that is rarely covered in YA fantasy. The writing was beautiful and I felt really immersed in the world. I also enjoyed the portrayal of religion and how religious opinions aren't forced on the reader. Whilst Radu finds a lot of comfort in Islam and we get to follow the intricacies of how the religion works through him, Lada isn't a fan of religion and wants nothing to do with it. I think it was good to have both sides to this and to also see religion being portrayed in a good light if it's something that's right for you.
One of the most interesting areas of the book was the portrayal of women. Whilst Lada is furious that being a man automatically makes you more worthy and important in society, we meet a lot of women who make the most of being so. They show that being a women isn't a negative thing and that they also have the ability to wield power. In fact, a lot of assumptions about women are challenged throughout the book to show Lada that all women, no matter their role, are important and capable. Being happy to be a wife or live a simple life behind the scenes doesn't make you weak. I really enjoyed the women of this book overcoming their "disadvantage" of being a woman.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the romantic relationships. It is not a focus of the book by a long shot but there is a great LGBT representation and I'm excited to see where the relationships will go next.
And I Darken is full of surprises, politics, fierce characters and a thoroughly intriguing and gripping story. It's a nice set up for the next book and I can't wait to get a copy!