Book review: Three Dark Crowns, by Kendare Blake

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy of the book provided for review by the publisher. No other consideration was offered. 

I adore Kendare Blake, so I was all geared up to be excited about Three Dark Crownsand I wasn’t disappointed — but I did leave frustrated. I really hate it when that happens, especially when there’s no good reason for it, and to me it betrays some flawed editorial decisions more than anything else, which is always a pity. So much wasted potential!

I’m used to Blake’s horror (Anna Dressed in Blood is outstanding), so I was a little wary when I saw that she’d written a fantasy. I was interested to see how well her aesthetic would translate, because while I absolutely adore really horrific books with terrible things happening to perfectly good people, horror and fantasy do not always blend well. In this case, I was really pleasantly surprised by the balance — I felt like Blake was exploring a new genre really deftly and beautifully, while also staying true to her roots. When I pick up a book by Kendare Blake, I expect there to be gross things inside, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The book is set on a mysterious island where in every generation, a queen gives birth to three daughters: Triplets, each with her own unique talents. There are poisoners (probably self-explanatory), and naturalists, and elementals, and even seers. The sisters are fostered independently among the people who can best train them to use their natural talents, and when they come of age, they’re brought before the people in a complicated ceremony where they present themselves, meet suitors, and establish their footing.

Then, they have a year to kill each other off until the victor, who will become the crowned queen, is left standing.

So yeah, you know things are going to be hardcore as the book bounces us from Mirabella (an incredibly talented elemental), Katharine (a kind of terrible poisoner), and Arsinoe (an indifferent naturalist). Only the strong survive in a world where women are attacking each other both to stay alive and to seize the crown, and the weaknesses of Mirabella’s sisters mean they probably don’t have much of a chance going up against her. Probably. Unless someone is willing to bust out some cunning to go along with her training, and that’s where things start to get complicated.

We come to know and love each of the princesses along with the people in their lives — including possible suitors and wannabe future cabinet members who hover around them, sorely hoping they’ve bet on the right queen. Then we have the schemers surrounding them, including those who want to bring the princesses down, or promote given clans of individuals, or set up lucrative trade relationships, or much, much more. The women hurtle toward their grand unveiling with a mixture of fear, excitement, and frustration, and as predicted, everything cuts loose and spins into chaos when the three are together from the first time since very early childhood.

Blake has a deft way of sketching characters and bringing them to life, and all three sisters, along with their retinues, are very distinctive, colourful people. She manages to portray their commonalities as siblings (nature) while still developing them into very distinctive individuals (nurture), and she’s pretty good about not playing favourites, even when her characters do it. She also does a really excellent job of constructing the world around the characters without overloading the reader with exposition — it is both rich and easy to follow, which can be a really challenging balance to strike.

Here’s where things get frustrating, though: I found myself galloping along in the book, desperate to know what happened next, excited about the potential for the characters, and then I flipped the page and there was…nothing. It felt like the book had abruptly cut off in mid-scene. I had to re-read the chapter to understand that no, this really was the end.

Now, I love series. Stories are fun when they’re rich and elaborate and can’t be contained in a single book. I don’t need every book I read to be a standalone. But I do need every book I read to be able to stand alone. Blake didn’t need to wrap up every single story line and solve all the problems of the narrative in five pages, but the book should have brought some storylines to a close while opening up the possibility of the future. Instead, it felt like a really transparent setup for a sequel, and it left me feeling really frustrated. What if there’s not a sequel? What if I die before the sequel publishes, and never know what happened? What if any number of other what ifs?

This habit of practically cutting a book off mid-sentence to tease a sequel seems to be on the rise these days — I can think of a number of other texts that have done this lately, and I’m really frustrated by it. I understand why people do it and why editors let them get away with it, but you can’t leave readers feeling as though they’ve been cheated of the last 50 pages of a book. You just can’t. And it makes it really difficult for me to unreservedly recommend Three Dark Crowns, because I don’t want to leave readers sitting out in the cold. Maybe at the eventual conclusion of the series you can get a boxed set and pretend it’s just one really long book, but for now, I’d hold your horses.

Image: Crown, Alexander von Halem, Flickr