As is often the case—especially with fantasy—it was the premise that caught my attention and made me want to read Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns (okay, the cover too; young adult fiction really has some of the most alluring cover design). Actually reading the novel was an unexpected rollercoaster that definitely requires additional explanation, but I ultimately enjoyed the story and characters enough to be looking forward to the novel’s upcoming sequel… however nervous I am about the way that narrative will be presented.
It is the will of the Goddess that Fennbirn’s queen always gives birth to triplets and that those three girls are then raised by prominent families of the separate magical factions on the island, each according to the talent gifted her by the Goddess at birth. When the young queens reach the age of sixteen they begin a fight to the death with the last one alive claiming Fennbirn’s throne with her queen consort from the mainland at her side until the next trio of queens is born. The beginning of the Ascension year is approaching and the three queens—Katharine, a poisoner, Mirabella, an elemental, and Arsinoe, a naturalist—are preparing to fight for the throne and their lives. Despite the dominance of the poisoner queens over the last century, Katharine’s gift hasn’t strengthened as much as the Arrons would like. Rumor has it Mirabella is more powerful than any queen in recent decades and the Temple’s priestesses are already backing her. Only Arsinoe’s friends hold out any hope that her gift will show itself in time for her to put up any kind of fight against her sisters.
There is so much about this story that is compelling—the characters, the premise, and even, for the most part, the plot—but the presentation drags all the rest down so that it’s a slog to actually read through it. The perspective jumps between each of the three sisters and their immediate circle of “friends.” This might not be so bad if the chapters weren’t so short which winds up leaving the story feeling disjointed and makes it take three times as long to get to know (and love) the characters. I think this structure was used in an effort to heighten tension and underscore the emotional upheaval and confusion of the sisters—over the prospect of their approaching deaths and/or the knowledge that they will have to kill the others—and of their foster families who are driven both by their desire political power and by genuine affection for the three queens. But again, the choppy structure of rapid perspective changes confuses this emotional tension rather than serves it.
What I think would have served the themes of the story more effectively is if the novel had been presented just one sister at a time. I would have started with Katharine and followed her and the Arrons with only snatches of rumor about the events involving the other two sisters, culminating with her perspective of the climactic Quickening ceremony at the Beltane celebration and then switched to Mirabella’s perspective following her through the same stretch leading up to the ceremony. There’s more overlap between Mirabella and Arsinoe’s plots but seeing them solely from Mirabella’s side and then getting Arsinoe’s would have made both more compelling (and less confusing). It also wouldn’t have made the imbalance with Katharine’s plot—far less connected to the other two—so glaring.
In the end, however, the final twists left me with just enough interest in seeing the questions I was also left with answered in the upcoming, One Dark Throne. It also appears there will be a novella about the sisters’ early years (a brief glimpse of which I think I’d have used as a prologue to the first novel to get the ball rolling on the emotional tension).