NO ONE EXPECTS A PRINCESS TO BE BRUTAL.
And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over their every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets.
Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, who’s expected to rule a nation, Radu feels that he’s made a true friend—and Lada wonders if she’s finally found someone worthy of her passion.
But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against—and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point.
***I received this eARC as a gift in exchange for an honest review via NetGalley & Random House Children’s Delacorte
+++On the mature side of YA for violence and sexual situations
I wanted to love this story. Mainly because I am a historian and this area is of particular interest to me. PLUS a gender-bending version of Vlad the Impaler? Come on, who wouldn’t want to read that? This book took me a LONG time to read. It takes place over the span of years and the pacing is fairly slow up until late in the book. Most of what takes place is political maneuvering and everyday life.
Sweeping depictions of the Ottoman Empire, the diversity there, the role of Islam, and the gorgeous scenery. Everything is painted in painstaking detail. You feel the holy glory in every landscape and sprawling city. For anyone who is interested in what the Ottoman Empire was like in its infancy to establishment, this is definitely for you. It’s informative without being too historical, while sticking to accuracy. Some scenes are brutal and graphic, particularly the ways that treason was punished, etc. BUT historically on par!
Lada, I wasn’t entirely sold on her. A first, she’s this beastly, violent little thing with so much desire and determination in her heart that it hardens her against true emotion. She believes in tough lessons and pain. To have others fear her is to be respected. When Lada hits puberty, it’s a slap in the face that allows her to realize that she is a woman and she does have limitations in Ottoman society, but she refuses to give into their rules. Lada is fiercely herself and that self is not always likable. Sometimes, you might hate her. However, and take this with a grain of salt, when Lada falls in love and accepts her sexual power (I know), she becomes more human. She’s confused and has no female influence to help her through it. She has feelings and emotions and is totally startled and sickened by them, because she doesn’t know what to make of them. At the same time, Lada becomes so consumed by these feelings that she loses sight of her goals and the second half of the story becomes more like a romance than anything else, and as much as I love romance, I feel like part of the story was lost when that shift in focus happened. Part of Lada, her most defined part, was diminished. I think that we can be more than one thing, that Lada’s goals aren’t all she is, but she needed to learn to balance, and she struggled to do so.
Radu (the story shifts between Lada and Radu’s perspective) is a fascinating character. There are so many layers to who he is. He wears masks, wears his heart on his sleeve, becomes the Ottoman darling, but hides a secret that could destroy him. Radu’s moment of discovery, when he realized that his love for his best friend was more that pure friendship, wow, just incredibly well written. That epiphany is made of terror and honesty, of repercussions and love. It’s bold and beautiful and laced with feels. Radu’s story is poignant and moving. He is undervalued and easily dismissed. He is seen as weak and less than. Radu is insecure, but he’s smart. He wishes people would really see him and recognize that he has things to offer to the world. Islam becomes a safe haven for him and a place to come into his own. It saves him and is the foundation with which he becomes the amazing person he does.
Radu and Lada’s sibling relationship is complicated and becomes more so as they mature. Their love is a prickly, violent thing that is not always easy and they often resent each other, but when it counts, they’re there for each other.
Mehmed was a big letdown for me. I kept waiting for him to become more, to be someone I could respect, could root for, but I struggled to find anything that made me want to follow him as a ruler or even a friend. It astounded me that both Lada and Radu put so much of their faith and focus on him when his personality was kinda blah (sure he was hot but…) and his choices were pretty terrible at times. I feel like more scenes to get at the heart of Mehmed, to see exactly when they loved him so much would have helped build up the emotions and shown what was at stake during battles.
If you like any of the following, you’ll enjoy this: