I was at my local library recently, just browsing the shelves, when one particular book caught my attention. It was called Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, and it had the most interesting premise of any book I’ve come across this year. The flap copy alone had me racing to check it out and take it home. So imagine my disappointment when Three Dark Crowns turned out to be not only nothing like what I had been advertised, but also just a generally poorly-written story.
Major spoilers below the jump!
In Fennbirn, the queen always gives birth to triplets, each with one of the three magical powers of their land. In this generation, there’s Mirabella, the most powerful of the lot: she’s an elemental, which means that she can control the elements, like water, wind, and fire. There’s Arsinoe, a naturalist—she can bond with animals and make plants grow and ripen on her command. Finally, there’s Katharine, a poisoner who has immunity to most poisons and is capable of brewing strong, unique poisons for unfortunate others. At six, the triplets are separated and given to families well-versed in their magic—Mirabella goes to the elementals at the temple, Arsinoe to the naturalists of Wolf Spring, and Katharine to the poisoners’ enclave. When they’re sixteen, the triplets will be forced to fight each other to the death to see who will be the next queen. There’s just one problem: while Mirabella is strong, Arsinoe and Katharine have almost no powers to speak of.
Right away this teaser makes you think you’re going to get a way more action-packed story than this actually was. Three sixteen-year-olds fighting to the death sounds like some kind of magical version of The Hunger Games where siblings, not total strangers, were at war. (I mean, other than the sororicide, it sounds pretty cool, okay?) Yet a good three quarters of the book was given to seeing the girls grow up, meeting their friends and love interests, and learning (or struggling to learn) their magic. The actual battle didn’t start until almost the very end, and it wasn’t very exciting, besides.
Still, the book’s slow pacing alone didn’t necessarily have to read disaster. When the book started out so very slow, I quickly revised my prior expectations. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “it’s not Hunger Games, it’s Game of Thrones. Politics and backstabbery! Still cool!” And yet this also did not turn out to be true. Yes, each girl is guided and controlled by magical elders—the previous two queens have each been poisoners, and the poisoners want to see the crown remain in their hands at all costs, despite Katharine’s magical ineptitude; the naturalists and elementals are raring to see their own candidates on the throne. Natalia and the abusive Genevieve dictate Katharine’s every movement, while head priestess Luca confines soft-hearted Mirabella to the temple and in Wolf Spring the witch Madrigal entices Arsinoe to more and more dangerous magic to make up for her lack of naturalist talent. But this isn’t Westeros. The barest hint of any type of scheme comes from the temple, when Luca plans on killing Katharine and Arsinoe right as the battle officially begins. It’s a shockingly straightforward plan which Natalia and Madrigal do absolutely nothing of note to subvert or stop. (“Make your candidate seem strong” is a dumb plan to prevent assassination!) Somehow all these women who desperately want the throne chose to focus their efforts solely on their candidates, and engaged in very little subterfuge to otherwise ensure the downfall of the other candidates. Similarly, despite there being an obvious rift between the religious temple and the atheistic poisoners, it wasn’t expanded on for either political or narrative gain. Tyrion Lannister would have had them all murdered.
Then there were the disappointments with the writing of the book itself. We at least got a matriarchal society, as the queens are the clear rulers of the land and the king-consorts are seen as far less powerful or important. But there were no people of color and no queer relationships, and we ultimately get a number of poorly-written heterosexual relationships seemingly only for the sake of plot drama. Natalia’s nephew Pietyr is supposed to teach Katharine to seduce men so that she can catch the eye of a good king-consort; instead he somehow falls in love with her, thus gaining her trust for a huge plot twist at the end of the story. Arsinoe herself has a king-consort suitor who promises to take her away from Fennbirn so that she won’t have to fight her sisters; instead they end up right in the elementals’ path. And finally, we have Mirabella’s romance. Let me get back to her in a bit.
From the premise of the story, I expected two possible plot scenarios. Stories where people can do one particular type of thing and are battling the people who can do the other thing always end up upending the status quo, and so either one of two things could have happened. The sisters could have gotten together, realized they didn’t want to kill each other, and made some sort of co-ruling peace. Or, secondly, the sisters could realize that they didn’t have the magic everyone thought they had (thus explaining Arsinoe and Katharine’s lack of power) and they would have to learn new magic and overcome their stereotypes about “filthy naturalists” or “gross poisoners”. Mirabella’s romance ruins the first scenario. Though she’s the strongest, she’s also the only one who remembers how it was when she lived with her sisters, and she runs away from the confines of the temple because she doesn’t want to kill them. On the road, she encounters Joseph, the boyfriend of Arsinoe’s best friend. Joseph’s boat has capsized and so Mirabella controls the water and saves his life, which somehow leads to the two of them sleeping together and falling deeply in love. Then Arsinoe and her best friend, who are looking for Joseph, find the two of them, assume Mirabella is using Joseph for information on Arsinoe, and refuse to listen to anything Mirabella has to say. When Arsinoe and Mirabella meet again later, Arsinoe similarly doesn’t listen to Mirabella because of this distrust. Like, really?
Reading some other reviews online, it seems that the plot twist at the end saved this book for some people. Sadly for me, the twist was that Arsinoe was indeed revealed to be a poisoner instead of a naturalist, and since I guessed this before even opening the book, I found it to be incredibly predictable. I honestly would have preferred it if the sisters had gotten together to teach each other their magic. But why stop there? It would also have been great if the plot twist at the end had happened about five chapters in, if there had been half as many characters as there were, and if all our strong matriarchal women could have had legit strategies for winning the crown. The worldbuilding is sketched out, but it needs to be fleshed out as well, and though there’s a sequel coming out soon, I don’t think I’ll be reading it.