First Lines: Vlad Dracul’s heavy brow descended like a storm when the doctor informed him that his wife had given birth to a girl. His other children–one from his first wife, now nearly fully grown, and even a bastard child from his mistress, born last year–had been boys.
I’ve been following Kiersten White on Twitter for a while now, and she was talking about this book for the longest time. And I got really excited. It sounded different and interesting. Plus, it was Kiersten White. I’ve read everything she’s written.
No one expects Lada Dragwyla to be a vicious and ruthless princess, even given that her father is Vlad Dracul. But Lada knows that being brutal is the only way she’s going to survive, especially given that her younger brother, Radu, is gentle and compassionate. Abandoned in the enemy territory of the Ottoman Empire by their father, Lada and Radu know they are doomed to be pawns in a political game that could easily bring about their deaths. Lada knows brutality is the only way to survive. She bides her time until she can find a way back to Wallachia. Radu just wants a place where he can feel safe. When they meet Mehmed, the lonely son of the sultan, they know they’ve found a true friend and possibly, someone who matches Lada’s passions. But Mehmed is the heir to the empire Lada hates–the empire Radu now calls home. Can they all get what they want or will they remain pawns?
I just want to start by saying that this is nothing like White’s previous books. Even the writing style seems different. Normally her stories are kind of funny and cute, but this? Whoa, no. I’ll explain that more below, but just keep this in mind. Her writing feels…I guess more like an adult mainstream fiction.
The story unfolds in what I usually call the “life story.” As you can tell with the first lines, it starts with Lada’s birth and really, the timeline only slowly moves up to her teenage years from there. It probably takes nearly a quarter of the book before she even hits 13 and at least another quarter before she hits 17. (This is part of why I compared this to adult mainstream fiction, because that’s one of the few places where I ever see this kind of timeline.) Even though I understand why the story plays out this way, it also really slows down the story.
But while it may be slow, it is incredibly intricate. There is foreshadowing out the wazoo. You have to pay attention to every character and a lot of what the characters say because it usually comes back. And that was interesting.
I hesitate to say that this story is action-packed or suspenseful because I didn’t think ti was. What we do is follow all these friendships, relationships, and political maneuverings as they tangle and knot and fray. I was never on the edge of my seat, but I was always interested in what would happen next, just to see what the characters did.
Lada and Radu are interesting. I truly hate to call it a gender swap, but they have switched the stereotypical personalities types associated with their genders. Lada is vicious, stubborn, cold-hearted, and tactically brilliant. Radu is compassionate, gentle, sweet, and sensitive but no less brilliant at political maneuvering. They are ruthless in their own ways, but Lada is more of the “let’s punch him and get it over with” while Radu is more focused on getting revenge through social manslaughter. Radu plays with subtleties, Lada plays with cannons.
Now that I’ve repeated myself about five times over, I just want to say that I liked this change. I liked that Lada had to prove herself as a strong and competent woman and shocked the crap out of a lot of men. (It’s an underdog story, truly. And I’m a sucker for those.) But what was really fascinating was seeing how Radu became a master of social manipulation and how he used that to further his own aims.
And it was pretty interesting from a historical standpoint as well. (If Vlad Dracul isn’t exactly ringing any bells for you, he was also known as Vlad the Impaler and was the inspiration for Dracula.) For this story, White has turned this into a little bit of a fantasy by taking liberties with Vlad. Basically, she’s replacing Lada into all that stuff that Vlad did, so it’s not totally historically accurate, but the setting is legit and culture, as is the stuff with Mehmed.
Overall, I thought it was an interesting read once I got past the slow beginning.