Three Dark Crowns
by Kendare Blake
This book got me. Got me good. If we had been fighting a duel, I would have bowed my head, said, “Touche,” and apologized for however I had given offense. And then probably applauded my honorable opponent for the impressive victory.
And then the next thing I knew, I’d be flat on my back, completely stunned, looking up at the book smirking over me, hearing the onlookers making shocked noises at how badly I had been slammed. Because just when I thought the book was done – it wasn’t done. It was just setting me up for the knockout.
All right, enough metaphor: let’s just get into it, shall we?
This is a young adult fantasy novel, one with young female protagonists and a fair amount of romance and social drama – friendships being made and broken, trusted advisors turning traitor, and so on – and so it would most likely appeal to young female fantasy fans. But I am only one of those things, and I enjoyed reading the book, so don’t let me pigeonhole it: it’s a good fantasy novel. It’s the first in a series, so it’s setting up the world and the long-haul plot; both are interesting. The world is based around a magical island, hidden by mists and guarded, so the people believe, by a goddess. This goddess creates a new group of potential rulers for the island once a generation, and that group is always the same: a set of triplets, all girls, born to the previous queen.
The difficulty is that only one of the girls can become queen.
The other two have to die.
The other key factor here – and honestly, the part of this book I had the most trouble with (Other than the portrayal of a couple of the teenaged boys, who were idiots or cads, but I’m not going to complain about that because Lord knows there have been more than enough fantasy novels where the female characters are the crappy ones, and it’s certainly not all the guys in this book who are twits; just two, one idiot and one cad. I’ll just shut up and take my lumps.), because it doesn’t work terribly well – is that each of these triplets has a magical power. There are three main magical powers on the island, grouped into houses; whichever house has the triplet who wins the crown becomes the ruling council for the length of her reign. The three powers are: elemental control, animal telepathy, and – poison.
Look, I don’t mean to be one of those comic book guy, gaming fantasy nerds who complain about a fantasy world being not as good as, say, Tolkien; but this honestly felt off to me. The animal telepathy I’ve got no problem with; there’s not an epic fantasy story in the world that hasn’t made me want to pull a Doctor Doolittle. I want to speak to the Eagles like Gandalf, and run with the wolves like Perrin Aybara, and communicate with dragons like Daenerys Targaryen. So that power was great. The elemental power seemed overbroad, because that queen can do everything: she can bring storms, she can bring earthquakes, she can dance wreathed in fire. And on the other hand, the poison-powered queen can, umm, eat poison. And not die. That’s it. Seems lame in comparison. Also not terribly useful in a magical duel to the death. So I admit, that bugged me a little, particularly because the story is about these three girls approaching the age when they are supposed to start fighting over the throne, meaning they have to kill each other; and really, what are the odds here? The animal telepath can control animals and send them to kill her sisters, and the elemental sister can bring fiery wrath from the skies; the poison sister can – not die while she eats poison. I really couldn’t make that work well in my head, and so it was a bit of a stumbling block.
But here’s the thing: apart from that, the story is great. The girls have different power levels, which means some of them expect to die and others expect to kill their own sisters; and neither is a good place to be. That tension is very well done. The desperation of the weaker sisters to find some way to make their powers sufficient to survive and even kill, that’s also well done. And all of the intrigue, the social interactions, the boys hovering around them trying to become the consort of the next queen (which also means they have to bet on who’s going to win this fight), that was very well done. I liked all of that. I liked all three of the sisters’ characters, even though they’re all entirely different. I was trying to think of a way out of the conundrum they were in, and regretting that I couldn’t; that’s a sign of a good piece of writing, when it leaves the reader looking for a solution to the conflict.
But then: then it got me. At the very end (and no spoilers), an event happened that I pretty much expected, though the means of it was a surprise. But it turned out to have a twist, which I really didn’t expect; Blake set this plot up so well that I was genuinely thrown when the twist happened.
BUT THEN THERE WAS ANOTHER TWIST! Completely unexpected, totally out of left field. And that one, hooooooo BOY – that was the one that knocked me on my ass. But it was great, because it also changed the way I saw the book I had just read: I went from thinking it was okay, to finding it much more interesting once I had this new piece of information. And the best part about it was that it set up a whole different expectation for what would happen in the second book, which means that, of course I have to read that one, now.
So this was a good one. I will want to read the sequels before I recommend it entirely, because I’m not going to recommend a fantasy series that doesn’t end as well as it starts; but this was definitely a promising beginning.