Last week, I learned to play blackjack for the first time. Like a true noob, I thought the game was all about hitting your hand until you reached 21 or busted. And yes, while that is basically what it is, I learned that it’s actually more a game of logic and probability—I guess that movie with Jim Sturgess taught me nothing in 2008. So why do I mention this besides the fact that I like to insert weird anecdotes into every conversation I have? Well, it’s because I feel like I was dealt a weird hand with these two books that were systematically passed down to me from Round 1. And while they’re not two books I would pick for my own pleasure reading, they made for a challenging hand that ultimately made me a stronger blackjack player reader.
The first of the two books I read was We Are the Ants. Between the two, this one’s more my style—contemporary fiction with some angst, family drama, hard-hitting issues, and…aliens? OK, so I’m not really an alien person. So when I read the synopsis about how the main character, Henry, gets abducted by aliens periodically in his life, I was skeptical about liking the book. But as Sarah so correctly wrote in her post, this is not a sci-fi book and it’s definitely not about aliens.
What struck me about We Are the Ants is how quietly big events happen. Henry grapples with his boyfriend’s suicide, his dad leaving his family, a questionable sexual relationship with his bully, and mental illness with a matter of fact narration that’s equal parts frustrating and heartbreaking. Add his alien abductions into the mix, and we’ve now got an unreliable narrator with quite a few good reasons to be unreliable. Ultimately, it’s a story about how life and people can be unreliable. But an emotionally wounded Henry slowly learns that he’s got to learn to trust others anyway in order to make it through an unreliable world. It’s a delicate lesson to learn.
After closing one book, I broke open And I Darken by Kiersten White (and it is a brick of a book). Its got a cover with a sword and flowers on it, which is an attractive selling point for a lot of people, but screams a lot of “NOPE” to me. I’m not really into reading about swords and fighting, and the cover promised that and maybe some dragons or fantasy aspect. But again, I was bamboozled—by the cover this time, not the description. There were no dragons, some swords and fighting, but mostly a lot of political manipulation and deception.
And I Darken is a reimagining of the life of Vlad the Impaler, but if Vlad was a female in the form of the main character, Lada. Lauren explains the premise so perfectly in her post, and I agree, that Lada is many times the word fierce. It’s this fierceness that sets her apart from other girls of her time, and a quality of hers that delights her father. But her fierceness does not outweigh her gender, and her father is the first to dismiss her because of this. Lada struggles with her father’s opinion for a good portion of the book, as she struggles with the confines of being female at the time. But she wouldn’t be the main character if she didn’t break free once in awhile, right? Lada is a force to be reckoned with, and whenever she appears on the page you can feel the energy radiating from her character.
But while Lada is ever fierce and loyal to her homeland of Wallachia, her younger brother Radu is meek and bending. So when the two are taken away into enemy territory, they have two very different reactions to their surroundings. They live comfortably, and while Lada constantly remembers that they are actually hostages, Radu begins to assimilate and finds peace in his new home’s religion of Islam. The two are clear foils of each other, but they are still bound by blood and love—although Lada is wary to admit it.
Enter Prince Mehmed, a lonely boy who feels imprisoned by his circumstance, as well. He connects with both Lada and Radu, even though Lada reminds herself that he is at the end of the day her enemy. As they grow older, both siblings begin to feel more for him. It’s a complicated web of emotions as they are both Mehmed’s prisoners, confidantes, and even lovers. These relationships highlight what’s at the center of this novel—gender.
It’s interesting to see how Lada and Radu deal with their feelings and societal expectations because of their gender. Lada initially resists her femininity, hiding her first period from the housemaids in fear that she’ll be sent off to be married. It’s a legitimate concern, and she doesn’t want to belong to anyone. After all, she wants to rule and not be ruled. (No joke, it’s tough being a girl.) But Radu, who has a beautiful face and quiet disposition, also struggles with figuring out how to survive being a male who isn’t very masculine and is in love with the Prince.
And I Darken has well-developed characters, which is why I found the political intrigue and fighting parts boring or distracting. I know that the politics and fighting are important to the story, but I still found myself just wanting to get those parts over with. Le sigh.
Both books revealed to me that I should really try and branch out more with my reading. And while I don’t consider either of them my favorites, I can see how they can be someone else’s. It was a weird hand I was dealt, but if given the choice I would hit again! (More, please!) With all that being said, I would hit We Are the Ants more.
Winner: We Are the Ants