I guess between the visual tone to the cover and the fact that this was purported to be a gender-swapped variant on Vlad the Impaler (inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula), I had vague expectations that this story would, at some point, pan out to be fantasy--or at least a touch paranormal.
Non-Spoiler Alert: It does not.
I suppose I'd have to call this an alternate-reality historical. For the most part, not the kind of historical fiction that will passively teach you much about history (aside from some scenery and terminology, unless you feel driven to research all the many ways in which it diverges from the actual time period and events.) And with a very YA Game-of-Thrones feeling (feminist?) revenge element...
So, it kind of qualifies as a fantasy? >.>
Set somewhere in the 1400's (in the midst of the crusades), the story alternates between the POVs of a close-in-age sibling set who hail from Wallachia (i.e. modern day Romania): Vlada, who is her father's daughter practically from birth--the temperamental, conniving, emotionally constipated, and aggressive. And the younger brother, Radu--the delicate, intuitive, emotionally emetic, and needy.
The first 1/3rd of the book tracks the Dracul siblings from birth through their absent father's promotion to puppet ruler and the coinciding abandonment of their mother, to their use as hostage collateral by the Ottoman Sultan and their father's eventual forfeiture of their lives, and into their role as companions to the Sultan's youngest and least legitimate son. All the while, the Draculas come of age in a precarious and unforgiving world of power and corruption. The "beautiful" Radu grows out of his incessant bleating into charisma and manipulative capacity, while coming to accept his captivity... And homely Lada trains with the slave soldiers, growing in combat prowess, vindictiveness, and intense nationalism for the homeland she was stolen from.
Early on, Lada reminded me of Arya Stark. A LOT.
Though, where femininity was merely a liability to Arya, to Lada it is an obstacle of perpetual contempt. Despite women side characters being shown as wielding or bending power in their own more subtle ways, she persists in perceiving them all as weak. Which leaves her less with the impression of a gender non-conformist and more as an example of a self-rejecting misogynist.
And then... there's the Dracul sibling's only shared interest, which steadily grows into an inexplicable obsession for both. Mehmed, their playmate companion and son of their captor.
That's where the story started to lose me. Mehmed always seemed pretty weak and two-dimensional as a personality. Even as he establishes his power base later on and becomes more decisive, his fanatical determination to expand the Ottoman empire in the name of Islam made it all the harder to sympathize with him. So... what was his quasi-magical appeal to the Draculas? Some kind of toxic trauma bond mixed up with a severe case of childhood Stockholm syndrome?
By the end, it seemed as though the point of this book might have been to showcase the mental illnesses inherent with power-mongering dictators. Yet, there was an awful lot of defense of Mehmed (the Conqueror) and his policies...
Both Lada and Radu contribute to building and maintaining Mehmed's influence in their own ways, but its Lada who ends up pulling more weight. And so the rivalry between brother and sister, and their divergent destinies, becomes increasingly thematic.
In the final analysis, my feelings are mixed. The prose is solid--well above par. But the pacing did a lot of languishing. The setting, location, and politics are unique in the YA lit realm, but I didn't find myself rooting for anyone outside of the wet nurse (who ends up completely forgotten early on, despite serving as a surrogate mother to the two main charcters) one character's farcical wife, and the expendable infant pawns. And once Lada and Radu left childhood behind, I found I'd lost connectivity with them. My investment in their goals bled out, and my understanding of their motivations suffered immensely. Normally I love an anti-hero, and am drawn to strong female MCs. But as it's clear Lada's power-mongering cruelty will only escalate in later installments, I don't have any burning desire to observe her descent... and so can't see myself reading on in the series. Not even to see what might become of her somewhat more likeable brother.
Summary: This series looks to be hefty on the fiction, sparse on the historical... and so far, 100% devoid of vampires. >.>