Lada has always both feared and revered her father, Vlad Dracul, Prince of Wallachia. Having inherited none of her mother’s beauty and all of her father’s cruelty, Lada determines at a young age that she will conquer by force. Her gentle and extremely handsome younger brother Radu, in contrast, frightens easily and clings constantly to their nurse, earning the scorn of Dracul.
When Wallachia is surrounded by hostile neighbors, Dracul leaves Lada and Radu in the courts of the Ottoman Empire as insurance that he will remain loyal to the Sultan. Deep feelings of betrayal grow within the children. Lada decides to hide all emotion which she sees as a sign of weakness. Radu seeks refuge in Islam. One day they meet the Sultan’s heir, Mehmed who himself longs for friendship and a sense of belonging. Both fall in love with Mehmed who wants Lada to become his wife by entering his harem. Radu, for his part, enters into a sham marriage with a friend who has a relationship with her maid.
Kiersten White’s first novel in this series is engrossing and full of intrigue. The complexities of international and court politics create an intricate plot full of changing relationships. Even the Sultan’s harem has a pecking order in which Mehmed’s mother wields more influence than any man in the government.
Sadly, none of the three protagonists earn the reader’s sympathies. Although Lada is admirable for her independence and loyalty to her own country, she is savage and controlling. Radu is manipulative, using his good looks and gentle demeanor to gain the trust of people he hopes to use. Mehmed claims to love Lada, but spends much time with his harem and consequently his children, whom he tells Lada are nothing more than one of his duties.
Having never learned much about Christianity, neither Lada nor Radu have much respect for the religion of their homeland. At the same time, the graphic scenes of torture and punishment they witness at the hands of the Islamic Sultan serve to fuel Lada’s hatred of the Ottomans. Indeed, there are several detailed passages involving violence (often perpetrated by Lada) and sexuality, including assaults on both Lada and Radu, as well as vulgar dialogue.
Perhaps the one redeeming aspect of the novel is the fact that Lada refuses to have relations with Mehmed (though they come close). She suspects that once she does, she will mean no more to him than any of his other wives and concubines. Despite the poor example of marriage she witnessed between her parents, her instincts tell her that marriage should be between one man and one woman. If not, the woman is always the loser, and Lada has no intention of losing.
A former teacher, Jennifer Minicus is now a full-time wife and mother.