This is–wait for it–a gender-bent Vlad the Impaler historical retelling. It’s filled with politics and conquest, and yet it’s very character-focused. It’s written with depth and with secrets, and it manages not only its characters very well, but also the setting (the Ottoman Empire in the 1400s) and the complex, twist-filled plot.
Lada’s character is developed around the concept of ownership. She’s raised to believe that she can own everything–once her nurse even tells her own son that “if she wants to eat your leg, she is allowed.” Lada believes that her family has a powerful city and her nurse never denies her from taking anything, so that she might grow to be someone who is fierce and powerful unlike her parents. When Lada is thrown into a world where she isn’t actually in control, she dedicates herself to getting back to Wallachia, where she can be.
Lada, Radu, and Mehmed’s friendship is odd, complicated, and cute; they’re dependent on each other and understand each other more than anyone else (sometimes better than they understand themselves) but they also miss some really obvious things that end up tearing them apart, which is, of course, realistic and true to many relationships.
The world is also fascinating and well-researched. Being taken back to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century has sparked my own interest and I plan to research it on my own as well. There are snippets of religion and other things from that time that make it very vivid, and the atmosphere throughout is set up very well.
Plus Lada just has a really well-written personality okay. A big part of the story is her struggle with fighting gender expectations and reconciling those expectations with her want to own things rather than be owned.
But I’ve rambled so much about her and said nothing about Radu and Mehmed! Radu is a sweet innocent child who starts off feeling constantly alienated from his sister Lada. He cries a lot, and he’s not weak; he proves his bravery and strength quite often throughout the book, in both little and big things. His relationship with his sister has many ups and downs given its mercurial nature, but in the end they’re always there to protect one another.
Mehmed . . . is someone I’m not sure what to think of. He’s sweet sometimes, sure, but he’s also the center of a whole lot of conflict and never quite seems to make up for what he does. His friendship is good for both Lada and Radu, but only to a certain extent, because things tend to fall apart because of him. I’ve lost trust in him during the book a few times, but maybe I’m just being too hard on him–in any case, it’ll be interesting to see what changes in the second book.
And I can’t end this without mentioning Nicolae, who is a very good friend to Lada and banters a lot (because banter in books is a must). Their interactions are just really amusing and nice to read.
- “‘And then I would steal your horse lover, to spite you.'”
And some other wonderful quotes:
- “She plucked a rose and held it to her face. She hated the way roses smelled, their sweetness too fragile. She wanted a garden of evergreens. A garden of stones. A garden of swords.”
- “‘Nothing like cuddling a corpse to give you sweet dreams.’”
- “‘Souls and thrones are irreconcilable.'”