Kiersten White pulls off something truly remarkable in this YA alternative history novel. Several things in fact. She makes an unfamiliar setting (the Ottoman Empire in the 1400s) compelling and riveting, with a solid grasp of the region’s politics and religious practices. White crafts a female heroine who is unapologetically violent, fearless, and ambitious, and makes us care about her with just the right touches of vulnerability and brokenness. White realistically details emotional challenges of living as a homosexual young adult in this historical period. And finally, she presents friendship and loyalty in all its forms, from jealousy to love to deathless devotion.
The book actually took me a while to get through — it’s really a good idea to read it through in a short time in order to recall all the names and places. But the payoff is truly worth it. The character dynamics are spot-on, especially as the book gets going, as we are treated to a truly compelling trio of friends, each with a solid set of identities about who they are and what they want as individuals. The most important of these is of course our heroine Lada, the fiercest female this side of history. Her character is sharply drawn, beautifully damaged, and gloriously invincible.
I only wish the cover for this book hadn’t fallen prey to the use of pinks, purples, and flowers to pigeonhole it as a YA “girl” book, when so clearly it deserves an image of a blood-soaked battlefield, with Lada vicious and triumphant upon a heap of Ottoman soldiers — the only kind of image worthy of her ferocity and fearlessness.