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.
I was interested in picking up Three Dark Crowns from the moment that I first saw the plot description. It sounded like the darker kind of fantasy that Crooked Kingdom had left me wanting more of. I mean, really, a queen giving birth to three daughters with different but equally impressive sounding powers and a fight to the death between those sisters to see who gets to become queen? Brutal sounding, maybe, but interesting. Then the book cropped up on a whole host of favourites lists towards the end of 2016 and I was completely sold.
I was disappointed.
Frankly, Three Dark Crowns is mostly boring. I don't use that word lightly but there's just no other way to describe the overwhelming feeling that I had while reading; it was boredom. The book opens with the bit of back story that you get from the blurb and introduces the three sisters: Katharine, a poisoner who is meant to be able to handle and consume the deadliest poisons without harm; Arsinoe, a naturist born to control living things; and, Mirabella, an elementalist who, you guessed it, can control the elements. Chapters then shift between the sisters as they approach their sixteenth birthday and their respective communities gear up to help them win power by destroying their siblings.
I think that maybe I expected something like The Hunger Games. A bit of world building and some character development and then on with the action that people (or at least, I) came for. The balance in Three Dark Crowns feels way off. A solid three quarters of the book is build up, which I suppose makes it all the more insulting that the world still feels pretty flimsy.
It turns out that not all of the sisters are as gifted as they're expected to be and they moan about it constantly. I get it, you're supposed to be a badass princess with a power that will have your sisters quaking in their boots and instead, you're powerless, styling it out and facing what you're pretty sure is impending death. That's bound to be challenging. What's annoying (and dull) is that this applies to two out of the three sisters, making things pretty repetitive, and seemingly they and their friends have decided not to do a great deal about it. Or at least, not to do anything constructive or sensible about it. They could be training physically, for example, or developing a realistic alternative plan to "win", rather than just sitting around waiting to see if they'll develop their powers in time. Don't even get me started on the one who seems to adopt a strategy of "if I get it on with this strange man, maybe I can develop an allure that will make all of the men fall in love with me and protect me".
Even the emotional side of being raised to kill your siblings that could have been interesting is dulled by the fact that only one out of the three even has memories of the others. The other two have conveniently forgotten their early life with their sisters and so believe the spiels they've been given about how evil they are. An easy dodge that just felt lazy. And there's insta-love. Twice.
And THEN, infuriatingly, the last quarter or so of the book was actually good. The princesses and their retinues all arrive at…somewhere I've forgotten and make the first moves in the festival that commences the year within which they're supposed to be trying to kill each other. The spark that's been missing for most of the book finally turns up and the plot starts moving at a decent clip with some scheming, some posturing and some peril. It's interesting, appropriately gory and sinister and reveals the potential that was hiding behind the whining all along (although one "twist" was a bit obvious and underwhelming). Despite having been utterly disinterested for most of the novel and been convinced that I'd put aside the first book and immediately scrub the series off my list as one to watch, I found myself intrigued and sure that with some fiercer editing and perhaps a wider shot at the overarching story, this story could have been something great.
Overall: I guess what I'm saying is that if you're particularly interested in the concept, you have a spare few hours (which is probably all this will take if you can get stuck in without being distracted…) and don't already have a burgeoning list of series that you’re in the middle of, the last quarter makes it feel as though the series will be worth a read. Otherwise, I'd probably wait until the next book comes out and see how the story pans out before committing…
Date finished: 07 January 2017
Genre: Fantasy fiction; YA
Pictured Edition Published: in September 2016 by Pan Macmillan