Every generation a new set of triplets are born, all queens and with an equal claim to the crown – but only one will reign. At the age of six, Mirabella, Arsinoe and Katharine, the current triplets, are separated and sent to live on distant parts of the island of Fennbirn to be raised and trained in their respective gifts. The annual Beltane festival approaches, but on their sixteenth year, the festival marks the beginning of the Ascension Year, where the sisters must covertly kill each other until only one remains to assume the throne.
Going into a novel like this, with three central protagonists, I was worried. I thought I would love one queen more than the others and that I would be crushed if said queen was defeated. The reality was worse than that: I loved all the queens and by the conclusion of the novel, I was a mess of tears and anxiety as I didn’t want any of them to be killed. That is certainly the mark of a great writer when you feel a strong connection with all of the characters and cannot choose a favourite.
Katharine, the youngest, is a poisoner queen. She has the ability to consume great amounts of poison without it killing her, but her gift is weak. The family that is in charge of her training, the Arrons, frequently poison her in order to build up her immunity but all it results in is a frail queen covered in scars and marks from the constant poisons. The Arrons have remained in control of the Black Council, the government body that rules while the queens are children, for the past three generations as the last three successive queens have been poisoners. Katharine tries to live up to the expectations of a legacy and is terrified she will destroy the potential poisoner dynasty.
Arsinoe is a naturalist queen. Like her younger sister, Arsinoe’s gift is weak: she should be able to make flowers bloom and have control over animals, but her power is not strong enough and she is convinced that she will be the first to die. Her best friend and central trainer, Jules, is one of the most powerful naturalists in centuries and even has a mountain cat as a familiar. Arsinoe is incredibly loyal and desires nothing more than to escape her fate. I suspect the inspiration behind Arsinoe’s character comes from Arsinoe IV of Egypt, sister to Cleopatra VII. Arsinoe IV was murdered by her sister, which does not bode well for me for Arsinoe in the novel.
Mirabella is an elemental queen, which means she can wield the elements, such as fire, water, wind and lightning. Mirabella is the strongest queen and the central contender for the crown. Her victory is all but confirmed which is why the Temple of the Goddess openly supports Mirabella, even though they are supposed to remain impartial. The Temple wants to seize control from the Arrons to return the Temple to glory and restore the importance of religion. The only issue? Mirabella herself, who dreams of her sisters and the love she still has for them.
What struck me most about this novel is that it is not just focussed on the three queens. We are introduced to the perspective of several other characters, which I found exceedingly interesting. We are not just witnessing the rise of three queens; we are also shown the realities of politics and power: who has it, who wants it, and what people will do in order to retain it. Alliances are formed and clandestine promises are brokered to support one queen above the others. The royals are not the ones in charge here: they are basically puppets, controlled by scheming adults, who seek to gain and influence power, quietly and in the shadows.
The world-building was clever and fantastic. The world of Fennbirn was fascinating and complex and I especially loved reading about the previous queens. The magical elements were intriguing and I was captivated by its role in the world, both through goddess-blessed gifts and low magic. Blake’s writing was beautiful and poetic, and I easily lost myself in the words of the novel. She effortlessly creates and sustains tension, which was the driving force of the novel. There was not one moment where I felt safe; every scene was infused with emotion and suspense, especially the ending. I think I was an emotional wreck for the last few chapters.
Relationships and friendships are a central part of the novel. Even though befriending a queen is akin to “befriending a cow on its way to slaughter,” the friendships gained are strong and loyal. I was impressed by the strong female friendships developed and how willing the girls are to help out a friend, no matter the consequences. There is, however, a minor love triangle, which I know many readers find tiresome and unoriginal, but trust me when I say it is not one you will see coming or expect. I am curious to see where it will go in the next book.
Three Dark Crowns is a book that will have people invested. It is quite slow at the beginning, especially for a book with such dark themes, but it is well worth the perseverance. There are twists and turns peppered throughout the novel, a dash of romance and plenty of heart-stopping angst. The first novel essentially sets up the world of Fennbirn and the triplet’s lives, while the second book will undoubtedly focus on the battle for the crown. In Three Dark Crowns a dark fantasy world has been created, one that I can’t wait to learn more of in the next novel.