And I Darken by Kiersten White is an alternative history novel that dares to wonder what would happen if Vlad the Impaler, a figure who existed in the mid-15th century during the Ottoman Empire and was the inspiration for Dracula, was female. She’d be fierce, to say the least.
Like all siblings, Lada and Radu vie for their father’s attention especially with an emotionally, and then very literal, absent mother. A brute and a tyrant, Prince Vlad Dracul, raises his children with an iron fist and instills into Lada the notion that Wallachia, her home, is her mother. So when Lada and Radu are sent away as hostages to the Ottoman Empire in exchange for Vlad’s loyalty, Lada becomes more savage and brutal whereas sweet, gentle Radu finds himself isolated and ostracized. There they meet Prince Mehmed, Sultan Murad’s third and least favorite son, and squad up. Lada finds there are limited options at court for a feral creature like herself and Radu’s debilitating loneliness leads him to find solace in practicing Islam. As they grow up, Lada and Radu find themselves vying for the same man’s attention again, but this time it’s Mehmed. Talk about a complicated family dynamic.
In a surprising turn of events involving quite a bit of political intrigue, Mehmed becomes the sole heir to the throne and eventually crowned Sultan. As they age, Lada learns the various ways in which anyone, even a woman, can acquire and wield power. In the same ways that Lada struggles with her femininity throughout the whole story, Radu struggles with his loneliness. He finds strength in his faith and solace in his friendship with Mehmed.
And I Darken is very much a character-driven novel, but the historical references help to instill a deep sense of place and time that provide a level of world-building often seen in dystopian novels. And it feels just so: like an imperfect society. Having completely forgotten everything I ever learned about the Ottoman Empire in school, White did an excellent job of capturing the culture and brutality of the time through characters that were simultaneously unlikable and likable. Their flaws make them more real. (Oh wait, most of them were.)
Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy is less about profanity and more about communication.
In seventeen days, an asteroid called BR1019 will destroy Los Angeles. In an effort to save the city, NASA has gathered the world’s top scientists, including 17-year-old Yuri Strelnikov, a Russian physicist whose work on antimatter is Nobel-worthy. Working amongst his colleagues, Yuri struggles through language barriers, security clearances, and generation gaps. While taking a much needed caffeine break, he runs into Dovie, the free-spirited daughter of one of the janitors, and like any awkward, sheltered 17-year-old boy he becomes instantly infatuated. Yuri believes that in order to make the older counterparts on his team take him more seriously, he insists that he must learn how to swear in English and tries to get Dovie to teach him but she refuses, telling him that he isn’t ready because he needs to understand people better.
For an end-of-the-world novel, the tone is surprisingly light. Sure, there is A LOT pressure on Yuri. He’s trying to save the city he has just been brought to, that happens to also be the destination of this hurtling hunk of space rock, but there doesn’t seem to be much urgency. He has every confidence that they’ll finish the work, or at the very least he’ll finish his part of the project. He’s so confident, in fact, that he works on an alternate solution involving antimatter, which is the presumed reason he’s been brought in to to work on this task force, even though they aren’t considering using it because no one has officially published anything on the matter. Oh wait, his arch-nemesis back in Russia stole Yuri’s soon-to-be published findings on antimatter. So now there’s urgency, but it’s for Yuri to get back to Russia. Oh wait, he can’t because he snuck into the Director’s office and saw some confidential documents he wasn’t supposed to, so now his stay in the States beyond these seventeen days is indefinite.
Will Yuri help save Los Angeles from total destruction? Can Yuri make it back to Russia to save his work from being published by another scientist? Will Yuri ever be a normal kid?
Spoiler: Yes, Yuri gets to do some normal kid stuff. Like go to the mall, participate in a humiliating gym class, and in a spectacular act of teenage rebellion, he sneaks out to take Dovie to the Prom only to return back to NASA to receive some heavy news. And then the gravity of the situation becomes grave.
Of all the things that I was disappointed in, and there weren’t many, the biggest had to be that there were absolutely no references to the 1998 hit movie, Armageddon, but that might be because it was literally before Yuri’s time. But in all seriousness, Learning to Swear in America is a wonderful debut novel full of quirky characters who understand the true meaning of sacrifice and the underlying message: when language fails, sometimes actions speak louder than words.
Verdict: How do you compare two books that share very little common ground?
Let your cat decide:
Not really. I read And I Darken first wanting to “get it out of the way” because it’s one brick of a book. But like so many others have said, this one has stuck with me. There is a vibrancy and richness to the story that shines despite it being so dark. And there’s been a bad taste in my mouth for the last month or so, and reading a story that celebrated the beauty and power of faith, Islam nonetheless, was refreshing. And the diversity! Oh the diversity!
Also, Kiersten White is a seasoned YA novelist, with three other series under her belt, and tackles gender roles, religion, sexuality, politics, and feminism with aplomb. Poor Learning to Swear in America, never had a chance. That isn’t to say that, Learning to Swear in America, wasn’t great. It was but it fell flat against And I Darken.
I loved, And I Darken, as certain dark things are to be loved: in secret, between the shadow and the soul*. But since this was for a tournament, I guess it can’t be that secret.
Winner: And I Darken by Kiersten White
*Sonnet XVII by Pablo Neruda