I should be in bed right now. I should be getting a good night’s sleep before I start my work week tomorrow, but I’m not. All hope of being productive today or tomorrow went by the wayside when I started Three Dark Crowns this afternoon. Since I started the book I’ve done nothing but read, and now I’m reviewing it late at night because OMG YOU GUYS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THIS. I am literally sweating right now under a cat and my blankets, typing this on my phone in the dark (#baddecisionsbookclub).
This is a dark YA fantasy, a grimdark fairytale about badass ladies and it is delicious. It’s about three sister queens who must kill each other to get the crown and if that sounds fucked up, it is.
This richly imagined, wonderfully detailed fantasy world is ruled by a matriarchy. Every generation the current queen births triplets, all girls. Each girl is the recipient of one of three principle forms of magic. There are naturalists who can tame wild animals and make plants grow and summon fucking whales to pull their ships. There are elementalists who control fire and lightning and hurricanes. There are poisoners who can consume any poison and remain unharmed. The queen has no relationship with her daughters after birth; they are separated and sent to live with foster families and train in their respective arts.
After the Beltane ceremony on their 16th birthday the sisters have one year, a period of time called the Ascension, in which to kill each other:
“Beltane,” Billy says. “It’s held every year isn’t it?”
“Yes. But this year is different. This Beltane is the start of the Ascension Year.”
“I know that,” he says. “But how is it different? Does it still last for three days?”
Arisnoe cocks her head. She can only say what she has heard. Neither she nor Jules has ever attended one. To go, you must be at least sixteen.
“It is still three days,” she says, “and there is always the Hunt. The ritual hunt meant to provide meat for the feasts. Then normally there are daily blessings, and rites that the temple performs. But this year there won’t be much of that. Everyone will be preparing for the Disembarking the night after the Hunt, and the Quickening on the night after that.”
“The Disembarking,” he says. “Where you are presented to the suitors.”
“Where the suitors are presented to us,” she says, and punches him in the arm.
“All right. Ow. And the Quickening. That’s when you demonstrate your gift. How are you going to manage that?” he asks, and braces for another hit.
Arisnoe chuckles instead. “I thought I would learn to juggle three herring,” she says. “Katharine will eat poison, and Mirabella…Mirabella can fart cyclones for all it will matter. The island will love her best.”
Of the three queens, Arisnoe is the most irreverent and the one I love best. She is meant to be a naturalist but has manifested no power, unable even to call a familiar. She lives in her community in a way that the other queens live: above and apart from it. Five years ago, Arisnoe and her best friend Jules (Jules has a mountain lion for a familiar and she’s awesome) tried to escape the island and failed. Now Arisnoe is resigned to her fate, until tinkering with “low magic” makes her think she might have a small chance at survival. Arisnoe is scrappy and funny and tough as nails, and I love her.
Katharine is the poisoner sister. Of all the magics, this one was least clear to me since it seems to consist solely of being able to eat poison (and poison others). There are references to poisoners once being healers too, but that seems to be long forgotten.
Anyway, Katharine lives in a gothic court, raised by a family, the Arrons, who makes the Medicis look like the Brady Bunch. Katharine’s powers are weak, so the Arrons have been poisoning her for years, systematically, so she can build up a resistance. As a result her growth is stunted and she’s physically weak. I found Katharine’s world most interesting–it’s like an emo Tim Burton fantasy without Helena Bonham Carter or misogyny. Everything is dark and gothic. Everyone wears black. Katharine wears a coral snake (a live one) as a bracelet, for example, while men wear live, venomous scorpions pinned to them like boutonnières.
Mirabella, the elementalist, is the least interesting I think. She’s by far the most powerful sister and most likely to emerge victorious. She’s also closely aligned with the island’s goddess worshipping religion and is watched over closely by zealous priestesses.
The queens navigate a weird space between being powerful and totally dependent on their surrogate families. Without strong magic, Katharine and Arisnoe are reliant on their families to prepare them for The Ascension. Even Mirabella is essentially a prisoner to the temple. As much as the Ascension depends on a queen’s power, it’s also about political maneuvering that’s years in the making. The queens are just a means for other people achieving power, in many respects.
None of the women are particularly sold on the idea of killing her siblings, but all are pushed in the direction of tradition by their families. As a reader I wanted the three sisters to unite to form a badass triumvirate and fuck shit up for the people who’ve been manipulating them.
So I loved this book because it’s an incredibly detailed, fascinating fantasy world built around powerful women.
This is the first book in a series and so we only get the beginning of the story but I strongly suspect…
In some respects this book is also about young women coming into their power and finding out who they are, and I love that. I loved seeing the heroines rise in power–whether it be magical or just finding their agency. Arisnoe and Mirabella have close female friends too, and that sisterhood is important to the plot. Only Katharine is isolated–her love interest and her pet snake are her only friends (and neither are trustworthy).
There are a couple of romances in the novel–one a love triangle but not an obnoxious one, and one that made my jaw literally drop. There’s sex too, but it happens off stage. The romances are secondary and serve to drive the plot, and aren’t the main focus of it.
Three Dark Crowns is fun. It’s dark and twisted, it’s all about lady-power, and it’s got a heroine who wears a poisonous snake for a bracelet. I just wish the sequel was out.
Update: it is now Monday morning and I am full of regrets (not) and coffee. Team Arisnoe FTW!