“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”
If there’s one thing I don’t often review it’s solidly 3-star reads, but that’s exactly what Three Dark Crowns is. It’s a fine read, and I enjoyed it and its sequel, but the best thing that can really be said about it is just that admission – that yes, I enjoyed it well enough.
Three Dark Crowns tells the story of three teenaged sisters, triplets, each a magical queen of the (also magical) island of Fennbirn. Upon their sixteenth birthday(s), the balance of rule on the island shifts and their lives become a wild west “this island isn’t big enough for the three of us” battle royale. The girls are obligated by the rules to kill or be killed, until one sister remains standing – the sole queen of Fennbirn.
My issues with the rules of this fictional universe are too long to list, and I must admit that as a reader I had the option of accepting the rules of this universe as-is and taking it on faith that they’re reasonable. Ultimately, I did do this with the sequel and had a much more enjoyable experience thereby. Where this caused me trouble with this first book is a little complicated. As I was reading, it felt almost like a frustrating unreliable narrator issue – as though I was reading some Jeff Vandermeer surrealist piece instead of a YA fantasy by award-winning YA author Kendare Blake.
In situations where the author’s presentation of the fundamental universal rules is so obviously flawed or incomplete that it seems as though the author is leading the reader to question them, or setting up some characters to reveal how flawed these rules are, we are trained as readers to withhold investment until the issue is resolved. When we know that the guidelines of a narrative as presented are going to change, it only makes sense for us to wait on our investment and predictions until we have the real guidelines to work with. That was the case here, page after page. By the time I realized no better rule set was coming, that that flawed mishmash was what Blake had really intended, I was 4/5ths of the way through the first book. That misdirection had robbed me of a chance to invest emotionally in the narrative.
To my mind that’s a pretty scathing indictment, but I have to admit that it’s a very personal one. In essence, Blake and I just don’t speak the same narrative language, and while I can’t believe I’m alone in this I also cannot pretend that the problem I had with the book will be a problem for all readers.
So if we put that issue aside, what else is there?
The main characters are each fairly well fleshed-out as characters, and Blake takes care to invest in the development of each sister individually. They don’t grow or progress of a pace, and the time Blake spends with each sister creates a kind of melodic gait that felt very natural. The sisters are each in a distinctly different environment, which is suited to her individual gifts and which presents her with different skills and resources. These differences are remarkably distinguished in fact, rather than being superficially different but ultimately serving the same purpose to provide a level playing field. These differences combine to set up and drive a strikingly mismatched conflict, and Blake does a fine job ensuring that as readers we never quite know who is going to come out on top.
I think my greatest issue with this book is the core structure around which Blake constructs her universe. Underneath even the “to each generation is born a set of triplets who are destined to be the three queens of Fennbirn until their sixteenth year, when one must kill the other two and then assume the throne” thing is the issue of magics. You see, each of the three sisters belongs to a specific house of magic. There are five houses in total, but queens can only belong to three of them (which is explained, partially, eventually). When triplets are born, they’re identified as either Naturalists (with power to control nature), Elementals (with power to control the elements), or Poisoners (with power to withstand chemical poison).
What? Poison? There’s not even any magic in it – Poisoners are just resistant to chemical poisons. That’s it. That’s not magic, it’s a genetic advantage and then they get a doctoral degree in making poisons. I couldn’t get past that disconnect. It doesn’t make any sense to me and it was just too far for my willing suspension of disbelief to reach.
I also feel the need to acknowledge just how many criticisms of this book focus on the fact that the promise of the premise is wasted in large part on dumb teen romance. While they’re right, I don’t personally count this as a strike against the book because what else do you expect from YA fantasy but too much teen angsty romance?
In that same vein, plenty of people were livid that none of the main characters were likable and I agree -but that’s another thing I’m not counting against the book. These morally gray characters make mistakes (mistakes whose cost is often paid by other people), and I think it’s perfectly acceptable to tell stories of people, particularly teens, who aren’t necessarily good and wise. In fact, by writing so many unlikable characters for this completely female-driven story Blake managed to write a whole menagerie of different kinds of powerful, true-to-themselves women.
All in all, Three Dark Crowns is a book I really struggled with, and I wondered many times whether I’d enjoy it more had the story been written by a different author, or a more aggressive editor, or whether a change to this rule or that would have bought my willing suspension of disbelief. I think, though, that it’s simply a solid 3-star fantasy.