Since this is my first proper blog post, I wanted to start out on a positive note by discussing one of my favourite subjects, feminism in young adult literature. Too often, YA has been criticised for its depiction of unhealthy relationships and seemingly anti-feminist protagonists, such as those found in the ridiculously popular Twilight series. I would argue that this criticism does not apply to the vast majority of YA novels, many of which are written by female authors and feature a diverse array of heroines who defy stereotype. One series that does this particularly well is The Conqueror’s Saga by Kiersten White.
First published in 2016, The Conquerer’s Saga currently consists of two books; And I Darken, and Now I Rise, with the final book in the trilogy expected to be released next year. Though the series is often described as fantasy, I would consider it to be more of an historical retelling, as the books features none of the magic or supernatural occurances that are considered to be classic trademarks of the fore mentioned genre. Also, the characters and plot of the books are based on actual historical figures and events. The books take place in the 1400s and centre around the rise of the Ottoman Empire, in particular, the role Radu cel Frumos, Vlad the Impaler, and Mehmed the Conqueror played in its’ creation. Where the book diverges most obviously from historical accuracy is in its’ re-imagining of Vlad the Impaler (a notorious figure famed for his ruthlessness, cruelty and brutality) as a teenage girl named Lada Dragwyla.
I feel like any book that features a genderbent character invites feminist discussion, and The Conqueror’s Saga is no different. In writing Lada and Radu, Kiersten White has created two characters who completely subvert gender norms. Lada is a princess of the Wallachian throne, but she couldn’t be more different to the way princesses are portrayed in fairytales and Disney movies. First of all, Lada is described as ugly, a rare trait in a heroine. Lada does not view her lack of beauty as a setback, nor does she seem upset about it. She remains ferociously ambitious, and in a world in which women are expected to be docile and sweet, she instead achieves success using her cunning wit and penchance for physical violence. Here’s a quote from Lada that I think greatly displays her personality:
“On our wedding night,” she said, “I will cut out your tongue and swallow it. Then both tongues that spoke our marriage vows will belong to me, and I will be wed only to myself. You will most likely choke to death on your own blood, which will be unfortunate, but I will be both husband and wife and therefore not a widow to be pitied.” And I Darken, Kiersten White.
Brutal, right?! Her brother Radu is quite the opposite, and is also a far cry from the traditional prince. Sweet in nature and gentle, Radu has no interest in pursuing the Wallachian throne that Lada so desperately covets. Instead, his every decision is based on the intense and forbidden love for Mehmed, the son of Ottoman Sultan.
Though my main reason for recommending The Conqueror’s Saga to feminist readers is its’ questioning of gender stereotypes, I’d also like to point out that it features a really great array of female side characters! This includes Mehmed’s mother Huma, who uses both her femininity and her strategic mind to advance her own interests, and Nazira; a kind and compassionate character who relies on her impeccable social skills to help guide Radu through life in the Ottoman Empire, and keep hidden her relationship with her female servant Fatima. The relationship between Nazira and Fatima isn’t a focal point of the story, but it is beautifully written, and it’s wonderful to see Kiersten White incorporating diverse characters into her novels. Given that the books are set in the 1400s, it would be quite easy for White to suggest that homosexuality wasn’t particularly prevalent at the time. However, White has managed to incorporate approximately four LGBTQIA+ characters into her books.
Overall, I absolutely adored this series and would recommend it to anyone who’s interested in feminism, YA, or historical fiction. There’s a few other books I’d love to write about in a feminist context, so expect to hear more soon!