The first portion of this review will be spoiler free. However, for those of you who have read the book (or who are simply looking for spoilers), be sure to stick around to the end, as there will be a spoiler filled portion!
As one of the most anticipated YA releases of the year, I felt that I could hardly afford to miss out on what was sure to be a fantastic read in Three Dark Crowns.
In 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.
This book was everything it promised to be, and so much more. I was expecting cruel queens and a dark, sinister plot. What I was not expecting were the lighthearted moments in between, and the love shared by friends and family. The balance of both animosity and kindheartedness really balanced this book off, and made it feel much more rounded than it would have otherwise felt, had it simply been a battle to the death.
Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to summon the elements, such as wind, fire and rain in an instant. She’s also got a fierce temper to match her astounding powers. Yet as the years have passed, she has allowed herself to be polished into a future Queen the temple wants, relinquishing her once fiery personality for their image of who she ought to be. As Beltane, and the Quickening, draw closer, Mirabella has to face horrifying tasks and difficult truths, which dredge up forgotten memories and threaten to break her heart. I did not initially like Mirabella – perhaps because the other Queens looked down upon her – but she grew on me, especially through her kindly treatment of the girls assigned to be her maids and through her utterly human heart.
Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Except, as the reader immediately learns, she’s not. Well, she ought to be, but her powers haven’t revealed themselves as of yet. Katharine is sickly, small and pale, and utterly downtrodden by the overbearing Poisoner coven, who have become used to being in power through the decades. Katharine is meek, she’s quiet, and she appears to be utterly harmless, yet determined to kill her sisters and win her crown, simply because that’s what she’s been raised to do. Katharine undergoes a fair bit of character development in this book. I started to enjoy Katharine’s character in the middle portion of this book (for reasons I’ll disclose in the spoiler-filled latter of this review), however my like towards her quickly waned as the story progressed. She simply wasn’t very human, or even very likeable.
Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions. Except, like her sister Katharine, Arsinoe has yet to show much talent for anything a Naturalist Queen ought to be able to do. Her best friend, Jules, shows much more promise than she, having tamed a mountain lion as her familiar. It certainly doesn’t help that Arsinoe is utterly unwilling to participate in the murder of her sisters to become Queen – she enjoys the quiet life among the Naturalists. And yet it is Arsinoe who ends up doing the most fighting throughout this novel, both physically and emotionally, as she struggles to come to grips with the upcoming Quickening, escape her fate and to find her own power. I like Arsinoe, and I think out of the three, she is perhaps my favourite. Her upbringing has made her humble, yet fierce, and she loves openly and defends what she believes is hers, no matter the cost.
The story in this book gets off to a very, very slow start – in fact, most of the book is a slow, meandering story covering the span of a couple weeks. In many instances, this would have been a complete turn off for me – however, in the case of Three Dark Crowns, the world itself, with its magic, Queens, king-consorts and the like, was far too intriguing for the lack of plot to make it boring. Arguably, Blake had to do a lot of world-building (the reader has nearly 16 years of action to catch up on and a whole magic system to learn in very few pages, after all), so the info-dumping was to be expected. Hopefully the next book will feature some more action, romance and intrigue, but I’ll be reading it either was, simply for the beauty of the world and the characters which Blake has created.
From here on in I will be discussing spoilers for Three Dark Crowns, so if you have not read the book yet, I recommend waiting to read this section until you have done so!
Alright, so now to get down to the nitty gritty of it – the characters, the world-building and the story. I’ve already briefly discussed these topics, but its difficult to fully do so without discussing some potential spoilers.
The three sisters, or Queens, undergo many challenges throughout the novel, as is to be expected, although the challenges aren’t quite what you expect. Mostly because they’re not allowed to start killing each other until the Quickening, and the Quickening takes place in the last few chapters of the book.
- Mirabella hates the oppressive Temple, who is basically just using her to usurp the Poisoner government (which has been in power for decades). Understandable – what teenager enjoys being shut up with a bunch of nuns and told what to do all day, every day? Nevermind the grueling training sessions and dark expectations – like killing innocent initiated to “train” Mira. It is therefore unsurprising that Mira runs away – what is surprising is her encounter with Joseph, Arsinoe’s longtime friend and Jules’ sort-of lover. Joseph exposes Mira to a life she never imagined, and causes her to further question her oppression through the Temple, leading her further and further from the arms of her guardians as the Quickening draws nearer. It is also important to note that Mira is the only sister displaying any power whatsoever prior to the Quickening – making her the favoured Queen – so she faces quite a different reality going into Beltane than do the others.
- Katharine has spent her whole life being subjected to poison after poison by the Poisoners, in an attempt to reveal her powers. All have proved useless, and Katharine spends most of the beginning of this book nursing wounds and stomachaches. That is, until she fails the Gave Noir. The Arrons are desperate to keep a poisoner on the throne as it keeps their family on the Black Council. They’re willing to go so far as cheating during the Quickening, to ensure that Katharine appears to be a strong, indestructible Queen. Yet what everything goes to hell during the Quickening, Katharine is lost for days, pushed over the edge by the man she thought loved her (I think there may have been an ulterior motive here?). When she resurfaces, she’s out for blood and revenge, much changed from the woman she had been on her way to becoming.
- Arsinoe has a troubled past. As a child, she, Jules and Joseph tried to escape the island (and Arsinoe’s bleak future), but the island wouldn’t let them escape; Arsinoe and Jules are watched like hawks, Jules’ aunt serving her penance in her place, and Joseph was exiled from the island indefinitely for trying to steal a Queen. Arsinoe hates the Poisoner government, she despises her own lack of power and she worries about the what the future holds. The Naturalists have done their best to raise her humbly and strong, and she has become what many may want as a Queen (excluding her wish to escape her destiny, of course). As her power continually refuses to reveal itself, Arsinoe turns to “Lower Magic” (perhaps what we consider traditional witchcraft or blood magic), resulting in several tragic consequences – notably her own mauling and the void which grows between Jules and Joseph. Matters only worsen after she runs away, is captured, and releases hell upon the Quickening.
The world-building in this one was tantalizingly scant – there was so much info dumping, and simply not enough filling in the blanks. The magic system, while interesting, is largely unexplained. Why is their magic on the island but not on the mainland? How does one determine (or mistake) which queen has which powers? And the physicality of the island itself – has no one ever questioned how it exists, and how it holds its residents hostage on the island? Blake introduced a lot of information about her relatively small world, but very little detail about these bits of information. Overall, the world-building portion of this novel was underwhelming, but promises much as the series progresses.
The story was much of the same, if I am to be honest. If you’re a fan of teen romances, love-triangles and woeful love problems, this story has all that, and more. Yet many readers, like myself, were hoping for something more that an ill-begotten romance, and Three Dark Crowns offers very little in the way of action despite it’s promising premise. The story has a very, very slow burn, and by the time the fire is lit, the story just suddenly ends. There are cliffhangers and then there’s ending before the ending; Three Dark Crowns feels as if it was cut off mid story, rather than having reached some natural end. Overall, the story was rather lack-luster and abrupt, with too much build-up for too little payoff.
This book was, however, riddled with little reveals and surprises, which kept the reader intrigued (and from putting down the book). Yet the biggest surprise comes last – Arsinoe is not a Naturalist Queen, but instead a powerful Poisoner, resistant to a poison she accidentally consumes, but which nearly kills Jules. Blake leaves us with the question of where, exactly, that leave Katharine, if she is not the Poisoner of the three. One might assume that she is the Naturalist Queen (her affinity to her pet snake may support this), and yet, there’s also the whispered about Warriors, whose gifts have been little explained. Why mention them, or have them exist at all, if they don’t have a role to play? And what, exactly, was Pietyr’s motivation for pushing Katharine?
Overall, Three Dark Crowns was an intriguing read that was loaded with enough information to leave readers reeling for days, but it suffered from various problems with the writing. Loose ends, abrupt endings and a slow build will definitely leave readers waiting for more, but not in the right way – the book simply feels incomplete. The characters were intriguing, yet neither of the three Queens grew enough or challenged the status quo enough to be a particular note. The magic system, the characters and the world are satisfying complex and engaging, yet tantalizingly underdeveloped. I am looking forward to answers in the sequel, but I won’t get my hopes too high.