My Summary: Each generation of the royal family on the island of Fennbirn consists of triplets, all girls, with an equal claim to the throne. Each possesses an incredible power: Mirabella is an elemental, Arsinoe a naturalist, and Katharine a poisoner. On their sixteenth birthday, the deadly contest for the throne begins, and the last queen standing takes the crown.
From the beginning, it’s apparent that this is a high stakes game the characters are playing, and that fuels a lot of the suspense throughout the book. The contest is about more than just the three queens, it’s also about the balance of power in Fennbirn. Not surprisingly, there are a number of political factions in the queendom, one for each queen, and they’re betting their futures on the queen they stand behind. At present, the poisoners dominate the council, having established a dynasty of sorts with the Arron family. They are eager to maintain their place at the top, and the others, the Temple of the priestesses (backing Mirabella) and the Westwoods (the naturalists), are impatient to unseat them and reconfigure the balance of power in their own favor. So this book isn’t nonstop Hunger-Games-style action, it’s heavy with the political intrigue.
The beginning of the book was a bit slow for me, and I struggled to keep up with who’s who because of the large cast of characters (maybe it was just me, though), but once I was over that initial hurdle, the book clipped along and sucked me in.
One of the things that I appreciated about this book is that it is an unapologetic celebration of girl/woman power. There are no kings, only king-consorts to the queens who reign. And the heads of the political factions are women. In Fennbirn, women hold the power, and that is how it’s always been, so the culture is quite different from your typical fantasy story, which often portrays a very patriarchal society. For example, the concept of women marrying as virgins is a “mainlander” custom that the people of Fennbirn disdain. That’s a breath of fresh air to read since it’s almost always the opposite.
Yet even as women hold the power in general, that doesn’t mean every individual woman is powerful or free. Much of the book is devoted to exploring how the three young queens attempt to exercise personal agency in the face of what is expected of them. They may be queens, but they are also beholden to others, groomed from birth to be pawns in a grand political game. Everything they do has consequences and implications; their lives are a running show to prove their dominance to their future subjects and their rivals. They have mentors, servants, suitors, and allies aplenty, but very few true friends whose ultimate goal isn’t to reap the benefits of a crowned queen’s political power. And the violence they’re supposed to inflict to win is immense and terrifying. (I have two sisters, and I’d sooner die than kill them.)
But each of the girls rebels against the game in her own way. That’s part of what makes these girls compelling characters: they aren’t just clamoring for their sisters’ blood as expected of them, they have complex and conflicting motivations and desires.
This is a dark book, as evident from the title, and it puts you through so many emotions. You go into it knowing that at the end of everything, two of the three girls are supposed to die. As I followed each queen’s story, I sympathized with her, hoped for her survival (if not her triumph), dreaded her potential death. And then I found out that Three Dark Crowns is the first book in a series, and the world kind of dropped away from me for a bit. My brain went “It’s not over. It’s not over…” In two different emotions, frustration and relief. Frustration because there’s more waiting until everything is resolved, relief that for the time being, there is still hope for the three girls.
If there was one thing I disliked about the book, it was one of the romantic subplots. It felt very forced and seemed to be based on lust and not much else. But it didn’t hijack the main plot too much, so it wasn’t a huge flaw to me.
Also, I’m kind of hoping there might be queer girls somewhere in the series. Because why wouldn’t there be? Now that I think about it, if one of the queens were to fall in love with a girl, that would make for an interesting conflict since the crowned queen is supposed to produce the next generation of queens with a king-consort. (Watch this actually happen, lol.)
Recommendation: Read it. It’s chock full of powerful, complex, and dynamic female characters, has its fair share of plot twists (including a MAJOR one at the end, aaahhh), and you’ll finish the last page wanting the second book yesterday.