I have rather slept on Kendare Blake up until now. However, I applied to read her tie-in novel for Buffy the Vampire Slayer on NetGalley (because I have a Buffy rewatch podcast). Because I am generally more critical of tie-in novels, I wanted to try some of Blake’s original fantasy fiction to get a feel for her writing. Unfortunately, Three Dark Crowns left me wanting—not in a good way.
On the island of Fennbirn, a queen always rules. She gives birth to triplets, who are raised apart and then at sixteen introduced to one another and told to kill the other two to take the crown. Each queen (they are all called queens, not princesses) has a gift—there is usually, it seems, a poisoner, a naturalist, and an elemental, though there is mention of other, rarer gifts that others might inherit. Each queen is really the face of a larger power base: the poisoners are led by the manipulative, scheming Arron family; the elementals are backed by the priestesses of the temple of the Goddess; the naturalists are backed by the common people of Wolf Spring. Whichever queen prevails to sit the throne will see her backers become ascendant. The previous queen was a poisoner, so the Arrons are sitting pretty—but everything is about to change.
When I went into this book, I was expecting a fairly straightforward young adult fantasy novel in which the three queens eventually band together and rebel against their fates. I won’t spoil things, but I will say that I am both pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised by the ending. The pleasant part of the surprise was simply how Blake upends my expectations. I am always happy to be wrong when I make such predictions; books that surprise me are often quite satisfying! However, the manner in which she does so is a letdown. One of the queens is betrayed by someone very close to her, and while there is a modicum of foreshadowing, as far as I can tell there is no explanation for his betrayal. Similarly, the very end of the book sees another queen discovering something very important about her gift—argh, yes, this book kicks off the real plot in the last thirty pages and leaves us on rather a cliffhanger. Will I read the next one? Definitely, maybe.
My other major gripe is the utter lack of queer representation. The book felt weirdly heteronormative—because, to be clear, this island is a matriarchy. All these families and groups like the temple are led by women. There’s a handful of male characters, but the most powerful characters and the ones with the most agency are women—and that part is great. Yet all of the romantic aspects of the book occur between men and women. Speaking of which—Joseph/Mirabella did not make sense to me. I mentioned this to a friend, when we were talking about romance stuff, because as an aromantic person most romance doesn’t make sense to me. So as I was yelling at the page where Joseph is making out with Mirabella because she just saved his life, I’m like, “Why are you kissing her, you’re cold and wet and nearly died??” A quick glance at some other reviews from possibly allo readers suggests I am not alone in feeling like this romance is shoehorned in, though, so I feel vindicated.
Anyway, my point is that it is strange to see a book that is only five years old with literally zero queer rep. I didn’t need it to be huge, didn’t even need it to be one of the main characters. But I need to see that queer characters exist in your world, because the alternative is that you are erasing us. That is not ok. Nor is queerness even addressed—like, if Blake had put an in-universe explanation for why everyone is depressingly cisallohet, that would have been acceptable. I’d probably still grumble, because these days I am interested in positive and progressive rep, but at least it would have been explained. It’s just … not mentioned at all, and it feels like a big omission.
The rest of the relationships are better depicted. I loved the friendship among Arsinoe, Jules, and Joseph, and Arsinoe’s reluctant alliance with Jules’ estrange mother, Madrigal. I appreciated the coldness of Katharine’s relationship with Nathalia and Genevieve. I understood the discomfort of Mirabella with her strained relationship with High Priestess Luca. In all of these ways, Blake defines and shapes each of her three queens, who in turn become quite distinct girls. (I would argue that Katharine perhaps receives the least interesting vector of character development, alas, and perhaps that changes in the second book.)
On a wider scope, the entire society of the island is fascinating. There is a fairy tale-esque quality to it, in the sense that I feel like the society is not really all that functional as it is depicted, but I’m willing to go with it because the story and idea are fascinating enough. It’s implied but never outright stated that the island’s isolation from the mainland is magical—the mists prevent anyone from visiting unless they have the right knowledge, or are welcome, or something like that—Blake never really explains it, and I like that, because the worst sin I can imagine for a fantasy novel is to give me exposition about every mystery of your world.
So let’s say that Three Dark Crowns had moments where it intrigued me with its premise and stimulated me with its execution, yet it left a bad taste in my mouth, especially with the romantic relationships and lack of queer rep. There is a good, solid story here, but it is weighed down by the critiques I’ve mentioned. I’m curious to see about how Blake’s tie-in novel stacks up compared to this one.