Book Review: Three Dark Crowns [by Kendare Blake]

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Image (c) goodreads.com

YA fantasy is basically the limit of my interaction with YA, but that’s quite a lot, because fantasy seems to be quite a big part of YA. Anyway, I figured I’d read this eventually. I read her Anna Dressed in Blood duo some years ago, on the recommendation of friends, and was impressed. Although I’m not entirely sure if grit-lit is my thing (even if it’s not as murderous as Game of Thrones) I found the concept of this book compelling like everyone else. I’m not entirely sure, still, how I feel about it; there are a lot of issues in this novel that were quite distracting.

There’s no denying that Blake can write, especially with the backing of an interesting idea. Three Dark Crowns, the first book of the eponymous series, is set on the island of Fennbirn, where every generation, a new set of triplets is born, all girls, born with a gift. Progresses into your typical loving sisterly relationship; when they turn sixteen, they fight to the death. The one standing is crowned queen, who gives birth to a new set of triplets, and so on. A kind of family-style Hunger Games.

When the story begins, we’re introduced to the triplets – Mirabella, with an elemental gift using which she can manipulate the elements, Katharine, a poisoner, who can ingest poisons and survive, and Arsinoe, a naturalist, who can exert control over the natural world. Of the three, Mirabella is the most powerful, and the odds are in her favour.

An interesting premise, but it’s very easy to nitpick here. First off, an issue that is never addressed, is that there’s a sixteen-year interval between queens. There’s the rule of a Council, but why is a queen required if you only have one every sixteen years? Second, Blake gives us no indication of the origin for this bloody tradition; this is still acceptable, because after all her focus is on the present storyline (and honestly, an origin to justify this weird mess might be difficult to come up with, but not impossible I’m sure). We follow the assumption that the island has some kind of magical force because, after all, the chosen queens always birth triplets (What happens to queens who don’t want to marry, who don’t want to give birth, who are infertile? Why is it always girls? These go unaddressed too). Third, the integration of the tradition with the existing society feels incongruent somehow, and, as with many dystopia novels (although this isn’t really a dystopia, it’s squarely in the fantasy genre) you wonder how no one has broken out of this system already.
It’s a violent tradition with no seeming rationale behind it. Why this ridiculous waste of life? Elaborating on the tradition-society incongruity, people of the island seem fairly relaxed. They don’t seem enthusiastic about it, but neither do they want to turn their backs on an age-old custom. I know there’s a strong element of willing suspension of disbelief with these novels, but the society by and large seems…not exactly uneasy, but out-of-sync with the custom. A lot of the people who surround the three queens (with some exceptions, of course) are not bloodthirsty. They seem totally normal. Again, I’m aware that I’m assuming a fair bit; Blake of course focusses on specific characters and not the society at large. However, when we read books the relatable element for us is a common spirit of humanity, and I feel that Blake could have twisted that around to suit the situation, because these people are not really so drastically unlike us that they would be okay with this kind of senseless murder. They like the feasting and the rituals. The killing, we can’t be sure, and if we can’t be sure, I don’t really know why they would support it.

“For it is too cruel otherwise, to force a queen to kill that which she loves. Her own sisters. And for her to see that which she loves come at her door like wolves, seeking her head.”

Each queen is assigned to a foster family. For Mirabella, dutiful and powerful, it is the Westwood family, and, informally, the Temple priestesses, who have chosen to back her for her strong gift, despite their duty to impartiality. For Arsinoe, who is stubborn and less pliable, it’s the Milones, all naturalists with familiars. Arsinoe’s closest friend, foster-sister and a major character apart from the queens, Juillenne Milone, or Jules, is one of the most powerful naturalists on the island (with a mountain cat, Camden, for a familiar, very His Dark Materials, I liked that) and Arsinoe’s gift pales in comparison to her easy exertion of her ability. And Katharine, quiet and under-nourished from years of being poisoned (fun stuff), lives with the Arrons, an influential family of poisoners who head many of the posts on the Council. I’ve just rattled off the character traits for you, but these are more traits that Blake wants us to think the girls have rather than what is evident for us. Usually, it’s other characters commenting about this that informs us, and not necessarily character-behaviour. Blake definitely made an effort in this direction, but character traits don’t seem to emerge totally clearly.

Roughly the first half of the book is pretty slow. We meet the girls and their foster-families, and because there are three queens, each chapter narrates for a different one, which means the plot moves at a snail’s pace. It’s not really as politically ambitious or as violent as you’d think; the girls are mainly honing their powers, preparing for The Hunt, The Disembarking and The Quickening (the three major events at the festival of Beltane, after which this weird murder game begins). Things start to speed up in events leading up to and at the Beltane festival, but there’s not as much intrigue or bloodshed as I thought. There’s also an undercurrent of several romances, with the girls meeting their ‘suitors’.

Seeing as I’ve not said anything about positive the book yet, I should clarify that I thought it was quite readable. I think the originality of the idea is something to be praised, it definitely can’t have been easy to execute, and Blake does pay quite a bit of attention to world-building considering the other elements she’s juggling. She’s able to create a well-imagined world with interesting social dynamics. The characters (especially the girls) seem a little similar at times, though. She introduces several subplots which are handled well simultaneously; she’s dealing with three different sets of characters in three different locations (Greavesdrake Manor, the poisoners’ home, Wolf Spring, for the naturalists, and Rolanth for the elementals and the priestesses). She plays with other concepts which are also of interest, such as low magic (a kind of magic that is largely disapproved of) and the Gave Noir (a poisoned feast where the poisoner queen puts on a show and consumes a rich, poisoned banquet; although I can’t quite see the point of the poisoner sect, it’s not really a power is it – and I can’t see the point of their refusing to eat untainted food either, it’s not like henbane is so delicious you can’t forsake it for a dash of oregano). I actually wish she’d added more details like the Gave Noir, this is clearly an island with some very perverted, different traditions and I would’ve liked to see more, and it would’ve added a sense of richness to the world.

I can understand that this is the first of a series, so it’s easier to accept that events may not unfold as quickly as I’d have liked, and the characters weren’t as psychologically complex as I’d have liked them to be, because she was dealing with so many at one go. Now that the groundwork is laid, I think the series has potential, but it’ll take some work on Blake’s end to realise it.

The bit that annoyed me a little was that several things went unexplained at the end of the novel. However, I know a lot of people find that exciting so that’s probably on me. It’ll be interesting to see how the dynamics develop and change between the three sisters. I’m not entirely sure if I’ll read the next one (I wasn’t disappointed; more underwhelmed), but if the series premise looks inviting to you, and you, too, would like to murder your family, I would say go and ahead and read it. Then get help.

All quotes attributed to the respective works.

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