John C Adams Reviews 'Three Dark Crowns' by Kendare Blake

Updated: Aug 12

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake (Macmillan, 2016)

I came across Kendare Blake's fantasy novel 'Three Dark Crowns' quite randomly while browsing in our local secondhand bookshop, Barter Books. I loved the fact that the one book offered the choice of three different covers - something that was billed as 'Choose your queen'. This option cleverly underpinned the contrasts between the three sisters who are at the centre of this tale of fantasy, romance, magic and young adulthood. I was also drawn in quickly by the tagline, 'Three sisters. One throne. A fight to the death'.

Mirabella, Katharine and Arsinoe are triplets approaching their sixteenth birthday. The sisters barely know each other, beyond the assumption that one day soon they will engage in mortal combat to see which emerges the strongest candidate to become queen. They are motherless, and their father was apparently little more than a footnote to their personal history. The sisters have been raised in their own separate households, tormented by the task of mastering their individual unique gifts (identified on their behalf by their foster families) and under constant pressure because of the fatal threat represented by the fight to come. Only one will survive.

Each sister struggles in their own way. Arsinoe is supposed to be able to produce fertility in the natural world, yet she can barely induce a flower to open its petals. Katharine is training to be an arch poisoner, yet she is incapable of developing a resistance to poison, leaving her vulnerable to the dangers of handling material to which she has no natural immunity. Mirabella's power lies in her ability to spark fire. Subtly, as the novel progresses, hints are laid for the reader that the correct skills may not have been assigned to each sister during her childhood. I liked the way that the system was flawed, partly through the individuals enforcing it. This made the change the reader senses is still to come imperative.

'Three Dark Crowns' has been marketed as a young adult novel, and in fact was pitched as children's fiction here in the UK market, where it was published by Macmillan Children's Books. It certainly isn't children's fiction, at least not to my mind. It has a fair flavour of young adult, but there is quite a blurring of the margins between young adult fantasy (which quite often features alot of romance) and straight-up fantasy romance. Given that there was plenty to entrance the fan of fantasy romance in general, perhaps a strict demarcation isn't really necessary. It's a good thing to be able to reach a wider audience, and I suspect this novel is popular across a variety of age groups.

Is it feminist to pitch women against each other rather than working together? Or is it in fact sexist to always present women as engaging in collaborative forms of leadership and organisation? I was interested to see women engage in rigorous selection to ensure the strongest warrior prevails, something that we would entirely take for granted if men were presented as enduring this sort of trial. An excellent balance is struck in this novel because Blake is dealing with sisters. Their shared blood sparks genuine love for each other, instilling doubt in their minds. Even in this first book in the series, we can see the system already being undermined by the natural bonds of family.

As a parent of a seventeen-year-old daughter, I see both elements in the young woman emerging within our own family. It's certainly different to how my generation did things, but then that's the point, isn't it?

All of this bodes well for future books in the 'Three Dark Crowns' series, which I hope to see featuring the emergence of a strong loyalty between the sisters, with the existing system fracturing as they demand change. This would empower the young women to aid and support each other instead of enduring the brutal conditioning which forces them to undermine each other in order to get ahead.

I loved this novel, and I'm really looking forward to reading more of Blake's writing.

Thank you so much for reading my first ever 'Fantasy Friday' review. Please share your thoughts on this review or on any recent fantasy novel you've enjoyed in the comments section below.

My next review posting is for Mysteries on Monday. See you next week.

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