Now I Rise by Kiersten White
Published June 27, 2017
Like the first book in the series, And I Darken, White’s novel is a gender-swapped YA re-imagining of Vlad the Impaler as a young woman named Lada Dracul. Determined to sit on the throne of Wallachia, which she believe to be her birthright, fierce Lada leads her men on a quest to win allies to her cause and reclaim the Wallachian throne. Her narrative is paralleled with that of her brother Radu, who is working as a spy inside Constantinople and reporting to the Sultan Mehmed.
It did take me a bit to get back into the world, but this is likely because I didn’t re-read And I Darken before diving into Now I Rise. Ultimately I found it the more engrossing book, one that takes the Dracul siblings on separate but parallel journeys. I loved the symmetry of a brother and sister with different strengths who are keenly aware of each other’s gifts and of their absence.
Both characters are utterly fascinating. Lada is fierce and often downright mean. Her methods, at least initially, involve force, but she begins to long for her brother’s skill at subtlety and politics as the road to the throne proves more difficult than she had expected. In contrast, while he feels guilt about his deception, Radu effectively uses subterfuge and skillful persuasion to help the Sultan bring about the fall of Constantinople. However, he often thinks of his sister and her more straightforward methods of obtaining the same result.
I enjoyed the first book in the series, And I Darken, giving it a solid four stars on goodreads, but I loved Now I Rise. Judging from others’ reviews, I’m not alone in this. I suspect this difference is because the first book introduces the world and two interesting and completely different protagonists, but Now I Rise sees Radu and Lada make choices based on what is important to them, be it power, religion, love, etc., and then feel the weight of the consequences. With each character there is a distinct sense that they have blood on their hands. These are people who have been forced to make terrible choices, and who must live with them, wondering if they have done the right thing. It’s a rough progression into adulthood, from which neither will emerge unscathed.
As someone who enjoys stories about difficult choices, and about situations where characters make decisions that are morally ambiguous, Now I Rise really appealed to me. Radu especially, but Lada as well, begin to see that things are not so simple as good and bad, and question whether the ends justify the means. Although it’s said in a different context, there’s a quote from my favourite series of books, The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, where a character gives the protagonist a piece of advice to “Speak as you would write: as if your words were letters of lead, graven there for all time, for which you must take the consequences. And take the consequences.” It’s that last line that has stuck with me over the years and I think it’s relevant here, where Lada and Radu find out the hard way the bittersweet cost attached to getting what they want and must live with it.
The minor characters in this book, on all sides, are wonderful. I loved the father-daughter relationship between Hunyadi and Lada, the friendship and feelings between Radu and Cyprian, and the support and love that Nazira (I could write paragraphs about my love for Nazira!) and Radu share. Of course there are also the complicated relationships that each Dracul sibling has with Mehmed, the Sultan.
Lada and Radu both change over the course of their journeys, becoming less naive about the way things work. By the end they are no longer content to be pawns who are used/manipulated by others. While I adore Lada, her unabashed ferocity and desire to go after what she wants, it is Radu who stole my heart. His journey is especially devastating to read about as he doubts himself and all that he is doing to people he has begun to care for. Now I Rise is that most wonderful of things, a sequel that improves upon its predecessor. I cannot wait to find out the fate of the Dracul siblings when book three in the Conqueror’s Saga is published next summer!