A Review of the YA Book, Three Dark Crowns
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The following review of Three Dark Crowns (HarperTeen, September 20, 2016) by Kendare Blake is from Food, Fitness & Fiction contributing editor Amber Lee.
Here’s a description of the book from Amazon:
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.
With Three Dark Crowns, the very aspects that make the novel stand out are often the same reasons that make it harder to enjoy. I read the summary and thought: Wow! Original magic system! Matriarchal system! Complex world-building! Lots of action! But while Blake does deliver on many of these fronts, the promising set-up exacerbated the disappointment in the pitfalls.
High-fantasy young adult fiction is something I have an intense love-hate relationship with. Eight times out of 10, I’ll choose to read one over one from a different genre e.g. dystopian or contemporary. Unfortunately, 11 times out of 10 I end up frustrated with the same five problems I think every single fantasy YA novel has. (They’re practically built into the genre). These include vaguely medieval European settings, love triangles, only white characters, and too many strangely named characters and places to keep track of. Although Blake manages to avoid some of these faults in a big way, at others she falls into them headlong. The most jarring flaw was the sheer amount of characters and superfluous terminology. Though the jargon was often integrated into the plot enough for some of it to seem natural enough by the halfway point, most of the minor characters had absolutely no part to play later in the novel. I felt that they had very little individual character or appeal and stole screen time from central characters. The book could have been a lot stronger if it had stuck to the central idea. The three sisters are amazing in how different their backgrounds are and their story lines could have been much stronger.
Katharine is the first sister introduced. But while all the names and terms thrown at me during her introduction had me confused, I fell in love with Katherine immediately. At first, she was my favorite because of how defined her personality and setting were, as well as the compelling poison plot that isn’t usually included as a power. I liked how she was genuinely weak and not beautiful, being realistically sickly the way a person poisoned every day would be. And I adored her pet snake, Sweetheart. The little details such as how poisonous snakes are jewelry in a society of poisoners added a whole social dimension to Blake’s world-building. But then the love interest Pietyr came. While I love makeover plots, Katharine’s wasn’t even given a montage and suddenly she was attractive and seductive and in love with Pietyr. Though Katharine’s plot was unfortunately truncated, it was also the most focused and compelling.
Mirabella is the only sister with powerful and established powers, and her compassion made her stand out. The complicated system of priestesses paled in comparison to other settings, but Mirabella had a blend of hopeful idealism and immense power that entrances an audience as much as her elaborate fire dance at the end of the novel. Mirabella’s moral qualms and desire to reconnect with her sisters made her very likeable. While she had the happiest plotline, the moments of violence for her–in the ritualistic sacrifice of a priestess and her friend near-willingly having a hand chopped off –were, by contrast, the most horrifying. Her brief conversations with her sister Arsinoe were the only inter-sister interactions there were and they were definitely a highlight of the novel. Mirabella’s vulnerability in reaching out to Arsinoe and asking her if she remembers their childhood together was an emotional high note that should have been expanded on more, but I have no doubt it will be explored in depth in the next book.
Arsinoe’s third of the plot had the most unnecessary elements. Most glaringly, I really did not see much of a point to Jules’ and Joseph’s entire romantic subplot, which got nearly as much attention as Katharine’s entire world. While Jules as a foil to Arsinoe was an important addition to the novel, Jules’ love interest Joseph had very little function except at the very end. Their love triangle was quick and nonsensical, more difficult to believe than any of the fantastical elements of the novel. Arsinoe’s characterization was more from what other characters said about her than her own actions and she lost the chance to become more of a presence in the book because of Joseph and Jules’ frustrating relationship problems. When the stakes for Arsinoe were to be imminently murdered by her own sisters, it was doubly hard to care about a stupid boy cheating on his girlfriend he hadn’t even seen in five years. But before Joseph joined the picture, Arsinoe and Jules’ friendship was yet another example of the importance of female friendship and Jules herself a delicious example of Blake’s magical system. Naturalists have animal familiars and the descriptions of Jules’ telepathic connection with the cougar were great. Arsinoe’s resigned acceptance of her lack of naturalist power and her subsequent dabbling in “low magic” to compensate was one of the most individual actions she took. It illuminated a whole other side to how magic works and Arsinoe’s self-destructive desperation to prove herself worthy evoked a lot of sympathy. The vivid images of escalating blood rituals and the idea of ill-gotten power could have easily been a book in itself, and how Jules’ mother found out this power was not addressed at all in favor of mentioning irrelevant characters such as Luke and Matthew, as well as Jules and Joseph. Ultimately, the side romance was unnecessary to the plot that highlighted the heteronormative love triangles being shoehorned into a book already full of unnecessarily straight and white people. Arsinoe’s part of the novel would have been much stronger without it.
The prose in the book was beautiful, well-suited to the constant death surrounding the three girls. Especially in Katharine’s world, the way murder was depicted as a high vocation requiring years of technical skill was chilling and fascinatingly reflected in Katharine’s way of thinking. Mirabella’s world was in many ways the happiest, but the most jarring examples of violence were from the religious order that surrounded her. Blake’s scenes of violence always push boundaries of what I expect from a young adult novel while never losing emotional credibility. The moments were not quick transactions cashing in shock value, but were unflinching reminders of the reality of the world the girls lived in. It was especially significant in how far Blake went as to give one of the central characters a significant facial injury and did not immediately magic it away. Many young adult books claim to be gritty and violent yet would never press that far because of superficiality and the importance of beauty in their characters.
Blake is a master at tension and evocative imagery, but the pacing of the book could have been better. At first, the omniscient third person rotating perspective made reading the book frustrating and it was difficult to get a grasp on the different characters and plotlines. But about halfway through the book, Blake mastered her structuring and made the chapters shorter and shorter to show the quickening plot. I tore through the last third of the book at lightning-speed, but as there were fewer and fewer pages left with so much unresolved plot, the overwhelming “ohhhh noooo” feeling crept up on me. Although I had hoped for an actual ending with closure and a neat segway to the next book, the book ended with a cliffhanger. I admit I felt a little let down as I was waiting for the ultimate sparring off between the three sisters with all the mixed emotions and high tension promised in the summary for the entire book. For me, the ending felt like an end of a chapter or a part of a book instead of an actual ending. Despite my disappointment, I was completely invested in the characters and plot and there’s already a place on my bookshelf waiting for the next installment. In totality, Three Dark Crowns was twisty and surprising, with rich world-building and an engrossing quality many young adult fantasy books lack.
Here are some other reviews of Three Dark Crowns:
You can learn more about Kendare Blake and her work on her website.
Amber Lee, a high school senior from Irvine, California, is an editor for the Beckman Chronicle. She likes having too many hobbies at the same time to actually really improve at any of them: like reading, writing, art, useless historical research, drums, guitar, webcomic-ing, boxing, Muay Thai, and critical consumption of mass media. You can follow her on Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram.
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