and-i-darken

There have been countless adaptations of the Dracula myth. Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000 sets the story in contemporary New Orleans; Francis Ford Copolla’s 1992 film starring Gary Oldman combines Bram Stoker’s novel with the history of Vlad the Impaler; and the made-for-TV movie, Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula, tells a mostly historical account of Vlad Dracul III, the man, with a thrown-together twist at the end to show how he became a vampire. But there have not been many narrative takes on his life that don’t include vampires.

This is where Kiersten White’s latest epic comes in. The first of an in-progress trilogy called The Conquerors Saga, And I Darken reimagines Vlad Dracula III as a teenage girl: Lada Dragwyla, princess of Wallachia, traded, along with her younger brother Radu, in exchange for a peace treaty with the neighboring Turks.

If you haven’t studied dozens of different version of Dracula’s origin story like I have, then you should know that this is the part of his history that gets glossed over or mentioned as a footnote. It usually goes directly from “and then he was a royal hostage for many years, where he learned to fight, and his brother switched loyalties” to him impaling people and gaining a reputation for being brutal and merciless towards his enemies.

However, those years in the Turkish Empire laid the foundation for the kind of ruler Dracula was bound to become. I have never seen this chapter of his life dissected in such exquisite detail before, or from such a unique perspective. I don’t normally read a lot of historical fiction, and initially picked this up thinking it was another vampire story. It’s not. It’s an alternate history of the war between Wallachia and Turkey, with this first volume focused completely on the two teenage Dracula siblings, and the way they evolved and matured during their time as royal hostages. Lada especially gets a new host of obstacles to overcome, being not only a virtual orphan in hostile territory, but a woman trying to earn her place as a warrior and eventual leader during a time when such occupations were rarely if ever held by women.

I also appreciated the alternating chapters told from Radu’s perspective, detailing his struggles with his sexuality, his relationship with his sister, and feelings of guilt over finding belonging and purpose among the people that betrayed his father. Radu’s story is another piece of Dracula history that tends to be mentioned only in passing, if it’s mentioned at all. Most of the Dracula-inspired novels and movies I’ve seen leave him out entirely. So it was nice to see him given a hefty role to play here.

All in all, And I Darken is the teenage, gender-flipped Dracula origin story I didn’t know I needed, and I am ecstatically glad it exists. Just be aware that it does not contain a single vampire.

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