The Conqueror’s Trilogy: Book II
When looking for a book to read on Halloween, I chanced upon And I Darken, the first novel in this alternative-history trilogy. It was a fitting choice, as the series follows the fortunes of the fierce Lada Draculesti. In our own universe, her male alter ego would go on to make an indelible impact on history and Gothic legend; and Lada looks set to make similar waves in her own world. I discovered the second novel in the series at London Film and Comic Con and devoured it during the course of a quiet afternoon.
Now the youthful high spirits of the first book have faded into a stronger sense of purpose. Lada rides north to claim the throne of Wallachia for her own, while her gentle brother Radu stays behind at the Ottoman court. He’s destined to be sucked into the most significant siege of the 15th century, for it is 1453 and the young sultan Mehmed has turned his eyes south, to the walls of Constantinople. Two empires are at stake. Only one can survive.
Even though Lada has escaped the Ottoman court, it casts a long shadow. Both she and Radu must frame their futures in terms of their relationship with the most powerful empire of the age, and with the young man who leads it. As child-hostages, both of them grew to love prince Mehmed, but his accession to the sultanate spells the point of no return. Lada has chosen freedom and, gathering a band of lapsed Wallachian Janissaries, she heads north to challenge the usurper sitting on her father’s throne. She has hard men at her side and youthful determination in her heart, but how can their ragtag band challenge the ancient hierarchy of the boyars? How can she face down potential allies who can’t even contemplate the prospect of a female prince? And how can she deal with the other warlord roaming Wallacia: her nemesis, the Hungarian commander Hunyadi?
While Lada prepares to storm Wallachia, Radu remains in the Ottoman capital Eiderne. He can’t bear the thought of leaving Mehmed, to whom he’s bound by friendship as well as by more complicated emotions, ensuring Radu’s loyalty more effectively than any oath ever could. Unfortunately, Mehmed is making good use of that loyalty. Pretending to have fallen from favour, Radu lingers at the edge of the young sultan’s circle, while secretly investigating ways to strengthen the Ottoman military. It’s an honourable commission, but Radu aches for the days when he could publicly spend time with Mehmed, rather than having to slink around by night with covert messages. But Mehmed is consumed with preparations for his one great desire: to take Constantinople, the city he’s dreamed of conquering since boyhood. Radu is willing to do whatever he can to help his beloved friend achieve his dreams, but even he baulks at Mehmed’s final, greatest command.
This is a young adult series and so it isn’t surprising that there’s a lot of coming-of-age angst flowing through its pages. Not all of this is romantic in nature: if this second book has an overall theme, I’d say that we see our three protagonists identifying what’s most important to them, and deciding how far they’ll go to get it. Both Mehmed and Lada have their eyes on territorial gain rather than love; but it’s love that takes up most space. I had to keep reminding myself how old the characters are: by this point they’re all in their late teens or very early twenties, which is a tricky age in historical fiction. My one criticism would be that White can’t quite decide whether she wants her characters to be authentic 15th-century young men and women, or modern teenagers. Both Lada and Mehmed lead armies and engage in complex politics, which is strange to modern eyes but probably plausible for well-educated, intelligent 15th-century people. Radu, on the other hand, has a habit of channelling modern teenage angst.
Now, I appreciate the fact that White has deliberately inverted the usual gender roles for Lada and Radu. This is a refreshing experiment, but merely underlines the strangeness of seeing modern emotions in a late-medieval context. When Radu has his little moments of angst, he doesn’t sound like a sophisticated mid-15th-century Ottoman courtier. On the contrary, he sounds like nothing so much as a schoolgirl mooning over the boy of her dreams, and wondering whether he knows that she, you know, likes him. In an age when people were commonly married at twelve, I really don’t buy the idea of a twenty-year-old man fretting over whether his friend likes him or likes him. And being simultaneously oblivious to signals from another quarter, which are so clear one could read them from the Outer Hebrides. I’m not saying that young people didn’t have emotions in the 15th century. I’m just saying that, with issues like plague, war, a very short life expectancy and the fate of empires in the balance, they probably weren’t still trying to figure out why someone’s smile gives them a warm, fuzzy feeling.
Nevertheless (ahem), there’s much to like. Lada is such a breath of fresh air compared to other historical-fiction heroines: pugnacious, uncompromising and independent. I must find a biography of the real Vlad the Impaler at some point, to see how closely White sticks to her source material: she seems to have done so quite faithfully in Radu’s case (though she’s created unnecessary angst: chronicles suggest the historical Radu actually was Mehmed’s lover). Mehmed himself is an intriguing figure, deliberately exploiting his neighbours’ assumptions that a young sultan has no interests beyond parties and the harem; and I was also intrigued by Matthias Corvinus, regent for the sickly child-king of Hungary. And we all know how those regencies end. There were highlights for me among the fictional characters too: Lada’s two doughty old soldiers, Nicolae and Stefan, and Radu’s delightfully compassionate wife Nazira.
If you enjoy reading about girls who not only escape from their ivory towers, but slaughter all the soldiers who put them there in the first place, you should definitely seek out this series. And, if you know a teenage bookworm who’d enjoy being eased into gritty fantasy, this might be a good way to do it. Naturally, I’ll have to read the final book when it comes out, if only to find out when Radu’s going to stop moping around and actually get a grip. But, in the meantime, I should dig out a history book or two to refresh my memory and better appreciate White’s reworking of history. Can anyone recommend a well-written, lively account of the fall of Constantinople?
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My favourite is Steven Runciman’s The Fall of Constantinople – a truly good and gripping account of the siege.