(This review was originally written in November 2016.)
I needed this book today.
I wrote my review for the first book in this trilogy, And I Darken, a few days before the Pulse shooting in Orlando, FL. The review went live on the book’s release date, as scheduled, and I remember looking at it and wondering how I had written so cheerfully about a book where one half of the story is about a young, gay, Muslim man, not knowing that hours later, amidst grief and anger, the compatibility of those identities would be up for national debate. Mostly, I wondered how my self-of-a-few-hours-ago had been so hopeful. People were writing beautiful, powerful books that couldn’t have been published ten years ago, or even five years ago. Things were changing. Things were better.
Then, 49 people died. I felt naive. I felt vulnerable.
I’m writing this review in late November, 2016, not quite two weeks after the most horrifying election upset in our nation’s history, and I’m writing it about a book about young, queer Muslims struggling with faith and identity while a young, angry woman — a “nasty woman,” if you will — rips down a decrepit system to reclaim her throne and save her people. It feels surreal that this book wasn’t written about this exact moment in time. As I write this review, I wonder if it will feel relevant to June of 2017, too, or if the moment will have passed. I wonder if you will get to read this review at all.
The heroes of this book stopped being children somewhere in the empty space between And I Darken and its sequel. I think that’s true of its intended audience, too. Early in the novel, Radu finds himself embroiled in the siege of Constantinople. Lada struggles to bring Wallachia to heel. Both make hard choices that would stagger an adult. Through it all, they fight to hold to their ideals and to their truth. It isn’t easy: with the world telling them one thing and their consciences telling them another, one or both of them could be led astray. It’s up to the reader to decide if, by the end of the book, they have.
Through it all, thought, neither sibling is alone. Separated from each other by distance and political alignment, they surround themselves with staunch allies. Radu has the fierce and marvelous Nazira, whom we met in And I Darken, on his right hand, and the kind and complicated Cyprian, a new addition to the series, on his left. They provide an interesting counterbalance to one another and to Radu’s shifting views, loyalties, and loves. Readers who like internal turmoil and gut-wrenching relationships will love this trio.
Lada, meanwhile, has her usual entourage of former Janissaries — assuming she can trust them. She also finds herself drawn into the political machinations of Hunyadi, a Hungarian revolutionary, and the schemes of nobles and usurpers alike. Without her brother’s skill at persuasion, Lada finds herself off balance. That’s when things get interesting.
I can’t overemphasize how much I appreciate White’s nuance when it comes to issues of faith, sexuality, morality, and the price of hard choices. Nazira and Radu must each come to terms with their queerness through the lens of their religion, and while Radu may always struggle, I found myself tearing up every time Nazira spoke of her love for her partner, Fatima. My heart ached as Constantinople came under siege, with fanatics of all stripes killing each other for dubious gains, and while the ordinary Christians and Muslims in the cast sought out what little peace and hope they could find. The conflict feels utterly futile, and it’s supposed to: we see the human cost of the war, and like Radu, readers will wonder why people do this to each other. It might be all too relevant.
I needed this book today, yes, but I think you’re going to need it even more in June of 2017. If you’re still here, if you’re still reading, then I give you nothing but my love.