Title: Three Dark Crowns
Author: Kendare Blake
Length: 383 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Three dark queens / are born in a glen, / sweet little triplets / will never be friends
Three dark sisters / all fair to be seen, / two to devour / and one to be Queen
Katharine, Arsinoe, and Mirabella are the latest generation of gifted queens born together but raised separately–raised to compete with, and ultimately to kill, each other for the throne of Fennbirn. But as Beltane approaches–and with it the Ascension Year, when the deadly competition begins–tension runs high on the island. Katharine is a poisoner but lacks the proper immunity to poisons. Arsinoe’s naturalist gift never manifests, leaving her weak and vulnerable but nonetheless defiant. The beautiful Mirabella, whose elemental gift is strong and who is favored by most to emerge triumphant, is reluctant to act as the puppet the Temple expects her to be. The magical, doomed sisters contend with love, lust, and above all, fear as their times draw near and rumors about sacrifices and sinister religious plots fly.
Three Dark Crowns is really something. No one element makes it such a great read. The writing is serviceable: simplistic and unmemorable but not poor. The world-building is sketched wonderfully, though incomplete. The plot is suspenseful and unfolds fairly gradually (to the point that I’m sure others find it boring), and the characters, like the world-building, are well-drawn but definitely in need of more development in the sequel. Yet the whole of this book is, to me, much greater than the sum of its parts. (Once I realized that it was published this year and that a sequel won’t be coming until at least next summer, I kept putting off finishing it, because please ma’am, I want some more!)
Ms. Blake made me care and root for all three sister-queens. I didn’t want any of them, much less two of them, to die, nor to be forced to take the lives of the others. Of the three main girls, I think that the story does Katharine the least justice. We spend a lot more time with rebellious tomboy Arsinoe and with the sentimental Mirabella than with the supposedly weak but sweet and genuine poisoner queen. Fortunately, despite her somewhat lacking storyline (unlike her two sisters, she spends most of her time batting her “doll’s eyes” at a boy), the last Katharine chapter suggests that the sequel has a much darker and more active plot in store for her.
The major side-characters were also fairly compelling, especially Arsinoe’s best friend Jules. And yes, there are love stories involved–included a dreaded love triangle–but honestly, it’s a YA fantasy about three (four counting Jules) powerful and desirable young women. A love story or two comes with the territory. Would I have preferred a bit less time have been devoted to these romances? Yes, probably. But did they ruin the story? Not by a long shot.
There were some truly, well, dark moments nestled in these pages too: severed appendages, gruesome animal attacks, some grisly blood-magic, and of course the overarching notion of three sisters turned against one another from a young age for the sake of power. It may not be Game of Thrones-level dark, but Ms. Blake’s obvious willingness to kill (or at least to injure, endanger, and maim) her darlings–physically and emotionally–made for an intense read. Unlike in some other books, I never felt entirely secure in the notion that all three girls would make it out of the book alive and/or well.
I also really liked the inclusion of Billy, one of the girls’ suitors from “the Mainland,” who serves as a stand-in for the reader. He feels as repulsed as most of us probably do by the Fennbirn’s royal traditions and struggles to understand its culture and worldview. And Ms. Blake really endeared herself to me with this little gem:
“I can’t imagine you doing spells. You’re like my own brother.”
“What does that matter?” Arsinoe asks.
“It doesn’t,” Billy says quickly. “I don’t know…I–I know I have met Luke, and Ellis, and so many other men [with gifts], but…spells? I suppose I thought that spells were still only for girls.”
“Why would they be only for girls?” (241)
Fantasy that prevents men from doing (and sometimes even knowing about) magic because reasons (coughWhenAutumnLeavescough) always bugs the crap out of me. So it delighted me that even though Fennbirn is a distinctly matriarchal society with a Goddess-centered religion, the men of the island are equally as gifted and equally as magical as the women.
Overall, Three Dark Queens is a very solid novel with a compelling, slow-building and slow-burning story and interesting characters. It left me hungry for more. I’ve heard that this might only be a duology, but I feel like there’s plenty enough material for at least three books. I guess time will tell!