It’s not easy being a girl in 15th Century Wallachia – ignored by your thuggish father, destined for a future in the shadow of your quite clearly inferior brother, possibly traded off in marriage as a favour to some mediocre local. But Lada Dracul doesn’t waste any time on self-pity. She’s too busy crushing her enemies (and sometimes her friends too) in her ruthless determination to bow to nobody in life.
This is the strange, violent, ambitious and quite possibly psychopathic central character of Kirsten White’s new series of historical novels. I started reading half-expecting vampires – mainly because of the title and Lada’s surname. But there’s no supernatural element here, although it wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprising to find Lada drinking blood at some point.
Lada is a seething mass of rage, ambition and barely concealed violence
Because this is historical fiction with a twist. Lada Dracul really did exist, but she was a he better known as Vlad the Impaler. He of the heads-on-spikes, the inspiration behind the original Dracula story. Feminise a character like that and you get the ultimate kick-ass heroine. Not the strong-woman trope so beloved by Hollywood (you know the type – can throw a punch, but is actually pretty good-hearted, counsels restraint and steps aside to allow the male hero to shine.) No, Lada is a seething mass of rage, ambition and barely concealed violence and yet somehow manages to stay absorbing and (mostly) sympathetic.
The book tells the story of Lada and her brother Radu, raised by a power hungry nobleman then carelessly sent to Istanbul as political hostages. Radu immerses himself in the local culture and Islam while Lada fights to keep her identity while being drawn into the web of palace politics. There’s drama, intrigue and an unexpected love triangle, the book is tightly plotted and bursting with action as the pair and their friend Mehmed fight to survive in the cutthroat atmosphere of the court.
Lada Dracul, better known as Vlad the Impaler
Part of the reason the book works so well is the dual narration. Fascinating as she is, Lada’s savagery might be tough to take for 500 plus pages – but Radu’s more sensitive nature and his own sometimes heartbreaking story adds feeling and depth, as well as carrying the plot forward. He’s the one who is basically good hearted and counsels restraint.
However, action packed as the book is it sometimes feels like Lada is waiting, biding her time at court until she’s ready to unleash her own bloodthirsty reign across Europe. At times I was desperate for her to just up and leave. But on the plus side this probably means that book two (out next summer) will be even more action packed… I’m pre-ordering it as next year’s sunlounger read already.
And I Darken by Kiersten White is out now