I got this book in a bookish subscription box (The Nerdy Bookworm Box), otherwise I probably wouldn’t have read it so soon after publication. Before you pick this up, know that it is NOT what the synopsis promises. It’s not a royal Battle Royale, a bloody fight between three siblings to the death. It is the preparation for that fight. That’s not a spoiler, trust me, that’s a fair warning that will make you enjoy the book more.
THREE DARK CROWNS
by Kendare Blake
Published by: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2016
Paperback: 407 pages
Series: Three Dark Crowns #1
My rating: 6/10
First sentence: A young queen stands barefoot on a wooden block with her arms outstretched.
Every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born: three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.
But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins. The last queen standing gets the crown.
If only it was that simple. Katharine is unable to tolerate the weakest poison, and Arsinoe, no matter how hard she tries, can’t make even a weed grow. The two queens have been shamefully faking their powers, taking care to keep each other, the island, and their powerful sister Mirabella none the wiser. But with alliances being formed, betrayals taking shape, and ruthless revenge haunting the queens’ every move, one thing is certain: the last queen standing might not be the strongest…but she may be the darkest.
We are introduced, one after the other, to each of the three queens fighting for the throne of Fennbirn, a magical island about which way too little is learned over the course of 400 pages. Katherine, weak and fragile, has been raised as a poisoner but her gift has still not properly set in. She is basically tortured on a daily basis by her host family, the Arrons. They let venomous snakes bite her, feed her all sorts of poisonous food, in order to build up resistance. But Kat comes away from it mostly scared and broken and full of scars.
Arsinoe is a naturalist and, just like her sister, shows very little gift. She is still waiting for her animal familiar while her best friend (and host sister) Jules has one of the most powerful gifts ever seen on the island. Her chapters are the longest and most detailed, because Jules is as much a protagonist as Arsinoe is.
Mirabella, already famous throughout Fennbirn, is the only queen with a powerful elemental gift. She can controll storms, lightning, and even fire. But she lives secluded and under constant surveillance by the priestesses of the Temple.
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
So much for the set-up. Three Dark Crowns follows these three young queens as well as some side characters in alternating chapters and although they are all supposed to be different, the storylines and characters are all extremely similar. First of all, the side characters could easily be interchanged without anyone noticing. Most of them are just names thrown around when convenient. One side character, Luke, seems to be able to do whatever is needed for the plot at the moment. He is a librarian but also cooks and runs a coffee shop? Turns out, he can also sew dresses… and that’s as far as his personality goes. The others are literally just names, most of which I couldn’t keep apart because there is no description, not even age or relations. Sometime in the middle, I finally figured out that Madrigal is Jules’s mother, not some friend of the girls. I am the first to accept that I sometimes read inattentively, but this is not my fault, this is bad writing. Each girl gets a love interest, each is pushed or driven by a mentor figure, each has at least one friend to confide in. They do have different hair styles, which seems to be more important than giving their friends a past or character traits.
As mentioned, Arsinoe gets the most pages, Katherine gets by far the least. But I found her to be the most interesting character because she has it the hardest. But once the scheming Natalia, her mentor, throws young Pietyr in Kat’s path, this book is all about romance. Never mind why three queens have to battle to the death or how eating poisonous stuff without dying is going to help Katherine survive. Let’s talk about kissing because young adults are all hormonal idiots who want to read about kissing and nothing else. ARGH!!
Arsinoe, Jules, and Mirabella also get a love interest and, sure, some of that creates conflict, but come on! That’s not what it said on the tin. Do we really need another stupid love triangle? Kendare Blake tried to balance the r
omance with female friendships but by leaving the queens’ friends (except Jules) such bland, blank papers, the friendship becomes virtually worthless. Jules and Arsinoe are a great team, but Mirabella’s two friends, although one of them gets a story arc of a sort, are just stand-ins so Mirabella has someone to talk to. It’s a wasted opportunity if I ever saw one. However, Arsinoe’s storyline also contains the most world building and the best characters and development. Low magic, as the islanders call it, was mentioned plenty, although its roots are left unexplored. Joseph and Billy, the only two men with personality, also appear in Arsinoe’s story. This makes me belive that we are meant to like her best – so if the other two die, I won’t be surprised, but it is a rather obvious and cheap way of going about it. Let’s hope I’m wrong.
Finally, at the very end, the plot actually moves foward. The queens each have to demonstrate their gifts in a ceremony that marks the beginning of the year in which they are to kill each other until only one queen remains. And shit goes down during that ceremony! Before that, the powerful houses of Fennbirn scheme around a bit, but because apparently young people are also too dumb to get subtlety, it’s all very obvious and the schemers are not very smart. Again, the villains of this story are also interchangeable. Put a serrated blade in ones hand and icy blond hair on the other, they are still basically the same person.
The ending did have two twists, one of which became sort of predictable while reading the novel. The other, I will happily admit, took me by surprise and actually made me say WTF! But is a two-page shocking twist enough to justify 400 pages of lame romance and a very unbalanced view of three sisters thrown into a terrible situation? I mean, Kendare Blake wrote the book she wanted to write, not one I wanted to read. But if you have a premise so interesting why would you not explore that at all? And if you build a world with so many strange rules, different sets of magics, why not mention anything about that? It makes me think that none of it is actually thought-through, but just window-dressing for some teen romances.
Fennbirn, for example, is super intersting but we only get glimpses of why when the delegations from the mainland arrive. It’s also a much smaller island than I originally thought (there is a cool map in the beginning of the book) because a character can walk, in a few days, over half the island. The magical gifts that the people of Fennbirn posses also don’t make much selse. Elementals are cool, and Naturalists are also interesting. But Poisoners, the only really non-staple fantasy magic, are pretty useless in my eyes. Anyone can learn how to mix a poison and, sure to survive poisoning is useful but what is the point? What’s the greater scheme of things? Why are poisoner queens so powerful when – forgive me – an Elemental can control the elements and a Naturalist might have a seriously vicious animal familiar. How would a battle between such people look? Well, if you want to find out, I guess you’ll have to wait for the sequel because this book ends just before the battle begins.
As many flaws as this story has, I did enjoy the read. I can’t tell you why because when I think about it, everything is wrong, there are plot holes all over the place, the characters mostly aren’t very good and the romances drifted into soap opera territory really quickly. But it was still fun. The chapters are short, I kept being pushed by the hope of learning more about the world, and I did grow to like the queens, although Katherine remains rather pale because she appears so little in the book. Look, it’s better than some other cliché and trope-ridden YA but not by a large margin. There are good ideas here, I only have to wait for the sequel to see if they actually come to anything. And at least, after reading this, I’m ready for some smart science fiction. I shall take delight in the lack of tropey YA love triangles!
MY RATING: 6/10 – Okay