Book Review

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

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…

Click for spoilers!
none of the three queens will be obedient and follow the sorocide protocol.

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!

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Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

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  1. Hazel says:

    Thank you, Elise. Would this be suitable for a 13-year old?

  2. Hazel says:

    Sorry- Elyse. 🙁

  3. Whoa. I think my TBR just got longer.

  4. Dora says:

    This sounds good, but…

    “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.”

    … I feel like someone is getting the raw deal here.

    “I can command the forces of nature!”

    “The natural kingdom bows to my whim!”

    “I can eat the leftovers from last week in the fridge even if they smell funky.”

  5. sandyl says:

    This reminds me of a fantasy novel by Kristina Katherine Rusch about identical twin princes and only one can be King. I think the title is Heart Readers, but am not sure.

  6. SB Sarah says:

    @Dora: I nearly snorted my coffee up my nose. HA!

  7. Another Kate says:

    My tired brain read the title as “Three Dark Clowns” and I was intrigued. I was even more intrigued when I read the review and I was thinking that this was something I have to read now. But then I discovered that it is the first book in a series, and I don’t think that I have the time or mental energy to devote to a series right now.

  8. bev says:

    I just bought this recently, a bit on a whim, so happy to see this review.

  9. Crystal says:

    Waiting patiently for my copy to come in at the library. I can wait (she says through gritted teeth).

  10. I’ve got this one on my TBR pile. I’m hoping to read it sometime over the holidays.

  11. QOTU says:

    @sandyl: I have that book! I haven’t read it in years, so I barely remember the plot, but I think you are right. However, I think in that one it is the heart readers who decide who will be king based on inner character or something.

  12. Patricia says:

    Oh I can’t wait to read this

  13. sandyl says:


    It has been a long time since read that book. But if I remember correctly, the resolution doesn’t necessarily come from the Heart Readers. I can’t say too much more without going into spoiler territory.

  14. jas says:

    I loved this one too!

  15. Elyse says:

    @Hazel I think it’s fine for a 13 yr old

  16. Teev says:

    So this book is just world building and we don’t even get to the contest?

  17. Hazel says:

    Thanks Elyse, I’ll put it on the Christmas list for my niece.

  18. MinaKelly says:

    Not available in the UK 🙁 I wish Kobo would let you wishlist unavailable stuff so you could buy it when the rights were sorted out.

  19. KateB says:

    I’ve been on the fence about this cause the premise confuses me. (Why would you do that? It doesn’t make for a very secure or stable state?) But I was intrigued because, I mean, how could you not be?

    Your review pushed me over the edge … fence. On hold at the library!

  20. Elyse says:

    @Teev it’s not just world building and we do get the beginning of the competition

  21. Amanda says:

    Sorry this kept you up too late but oh what a book! I loved it too. I could have done with earlier building of the backstory I think but I cannot wait to see where these Queens go. I agree with your spoiler predictions too!

  22. starlightarcher says:

    Omg I did the same thing when I read this book! And I howled like an angry cat getting booted off the heating pad in the middle of the night when I got to the end and realized the next book won’t be published for a while. And while yes Arisnoe is scrappy and such, I’m not a big fan of hers. Maybe she just reminds me too much of my cousins, but I’m totally Team Mirabella foevah! Still, it was a pretty kick ass book. As for the last moment twist, I’ve got so many theories and so many questions.

  23. Haylee says:

    TEAM KATHARINE! I’m sorry, but as soon as Arsinoe touched dark magic she lost my vote (well… it was still close up until that steamy night at the beach between you know twos). Also,THE FREAKING ENDING!!! She’s sooooo cool! And I really admire her for the prisoner poisoning scene.

  24. Escapeologist says:

    “Three Dark Crowns” is Amazon’s #1 Best Seller in Teen & Young Adult Sibling Issues Fiction eBooks.

    That category is both weirdly specific and a delightful understatement…

  25. SB Sarah says:

    At one point, one of my books was #1 in Nonfiction, “Movements and Periods” which delights me to this day. The specificity can be hilarious.

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