“Let her be strong. Let her be sly. And let her be ugly.”
This is the first in a trilogy set during the mid-15th century that tells the story of siblings Lada and Radu, who are abandoned by their father, Vlad Dragwyla, as hostages to the Ottoman Empire. As they come of age, an unlikely bond develops with the heir to the empire, Mehmed. Mastering what they believe is their own key to survival, Lada’s ruthlessness and brutality combines with Radu’s cunning to aid Mehmed in his passionate drive towards fulfilling destiny – conquering Constantinople. This alternate history envisions the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler as a girl and frames the story through the scope of what motivations would drive a woman to become so brutal.
This was a fantastic story and unlike anything that I have read in young adult fiction in quite a while. The writing was beautiful, truly capturing the world during this time with its multitude of political intrigues and machinations as well as brilliantly crafting the development of this diverse case of characters. Beginning with Lada’s birth and traveling through her late teens, we learn how events and people in her life drive her motives. Additionally, we are privy to her brother Radu’s perspective and discover how those same motivations influence his life as well.
Lada is nothing like other female main characters presented in young adult fiction: She is not attractive, lacks social skills, is uncomfortable in her own skin, is calculating, fierce, and fiercely loyal. But perhaps the best aspect of this book is that you, the reader, aren’t just told over and over again that Lada is a badass: Her abilities are presented in well executed action sequences. Lada not only holds inherent talents, but she also enjoys and seeks out learning opportunities to enhance her skills. We need more literary girls like this in our lives! It was so fascinating to watch her meet strong women in their own right and together they all contributed to the ever increasing conflict over whether a woman’s ability to have power exists by fighting against femininity or defending it, an argument that still exists today.
While I was expecting some kind of love story given the gender-bending, and quite honestly, what young adult novel doesn’t include a love triangle, I will say that this was more of a love twist that served as a microcosm exploration into the larger tangled web of human relationships we weave. And I was pleasantly surprised at how well it all worked together.
I also appreciated the book’s exploration of differing religions, including the lack of religion, which I felt strongly fed into each character’s sense of nationalism. This will definitely become increasingly important as the series continues.
This story was far less graphic than I had anticipated given the subject matter; however, since this is the first book, the story is still in its formative years and has not yet reached the historical point in which Vlad has gained power, so I’m expecting this to get a whole lot worse as the books progress.
While I can’t wait to read more in this series, my only hesitation is that this is a very slow burning story that may be better suited to reading when all three are available, so as to read back to back. There isn’t a whole lot of historical dates or events to keep in mind, but there is a hefty amount of character development that will unfortunately fade by the time the second book comes out much less the third. Characters behave in specific ways that will have consequences in future decision-making, and the impact of these dynamics may not be as powerful as when they are fresh in your mind.
Overall, this was a great example of what compelling historical fiction should be and I hope you take the time to check it out!