Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

Three Dark Crowns is a highly nuanced, slow burn fantasy featuring four exquisitely drawn heroines in a complex political situation. The writing is clean, fast paced, and evocative without being flowery. But this feels more like a drawn-out prequel rather than a first story arc of a potential trilogy due to the focus being on character growth resolution rather than plot advancement. That said, the book has an authenticity that is often lacking in the YA genre and enough depths to keep readers engrossed and guessing.

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Story: Three sisters have been separated since they were young – each raised very differently to develop a special gift (elemental magic, speaking to animals, poisoning) to use to kill their siblings and take the throne. Arsinoe the naturalist, Katherine the poisoner, and Mirabella the elementalist have different personalities and tribulations. As the day approaches quickly that they must meet and then begin the killing, each is facing difficulties. For all queens are susceptible to the machinations of those around them – who would woo, control, and coerce. To survive, they will have to shed their naivete and innocence and find the means and strength to destroy those they once loved.

Since the story and first plot arc are character focused rather than action oriented, those looking for a thrill ride will likely become frustrated. This book is about the girls’ loss of innocence – through betrayals, manipulations, and circumstances. Each is raised with the knowledge they will have to kill their sisters yet none are necessarily actually prepared for the reality of the task despite each having to kill in some way to prove the potential of their abilities. But it is clear by the end that each will have hardened into diamonds as those around them are hurt or hurt others in cruel ways (either wittingly or collaterally).

Unlike so many YA fantasy novels, none of the characters are black and white. There are no good or evil, people are driven by their own ideals and needs, and bad things happen as a result. What I appreciated is that the characters pretty much all lay it on the table – this isn’t a world based upon subterfuge or the unsaid. Nor is it a world based upon the usual patriarchal assumptions of absolute virginity or abstinence. It gives the characters freedom but can also be a bit of a curse as candor can often be (sometimes, you really don’t want to know all the bad things of a partner or friend).

Despite the interesting nuances in the worldbuilding, there are still many questions to be answered – likely in the next volume. As such, this felt very much like a prequel. It covers the events leading up to the celebration day when the girls will meet again after a decade or so and prove their talents. It’s the day that marks the end of their upbringing and the beginning of the race to kill their siblings. So those reading to find out how/if the girls will actually end up killing each other may be disappointed that so little is resolved. But the ending is quite fantastic with several twists for each of the queens.

We’re given a very small picture of this world but now that the girls are out of their small ‘prisons’ and no longer sequestered, I expect to see fruition on several clues/hints that there is a lot going on behind the scenes. That big picture question is what is really intriguing about this first book – so much to speculate upon.

I know that many will find the first part of the book slow but the intricate character nuances kept me fully engrossed. There was enough happening behind the scenes and in the shadows to make me want to continue and find out what happens now that the situation has so greatly changed for our three heroines. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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