“Three dark queens
Are born in a glen,
Sweet little triplets
Will never be friends
Three dark sisters
All fair to be seen,
Two to devour
And one to be Queen”
In every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born—three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.
But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins.
The last queen standing gets the crown.
CW: child abuse, violence, animal death, body horror, gore
Since Three Dark Queens first appeared on my radar, it was followed by mixed reviews. Some folks have loved it, others have hated it, and overall, it seems to be pretty polarizing.
Now, not to be controversial, but I’m smack dab in the middle. Believe it or not, Three Dark Crowns has lots of elements I actually really like, placed side by side with some features that make me want to tear my hair out. It’s hard to say which really outweighs the other at this point, but I can say they’re nearly in balance (and if they weren’t, there’s one question that still tips the scale in favor of reading on with the series).
Funny, really, how that works.
Anyways, I think it’s best to start with the things I did really like. For one, this is based off the way bees choose a new queen. Bees! Now, I have a soft spot for bees provided they’re not actually in the middle of stinging me, and I adore that they’re at the root of this story. Real superheroes, those little guys are. They don’t figure directly into Three Dark Crowns, but they’re at its core, and that works for me.
Besides bees, though, I’m pretty fond of competitions for the crown, and the cutthroat element of the contenders being sisters forced to kill each other to reign is a perfect twist of the knife. Mirabella in particular remembers her sisters, even if Arsinoe and Katharine don’t remember nearly so well, and there’s an emotional twist there that resonates with me (especially since Mirabella is the eldest of the three, and that’s a surefire way to push me towards a favorite).
That said, I think as of this book, at least, Arsinoe is my favorite of the queens. She has no interest in starting a bloodbath, or in engaging with the competition for the crown at all. She has what she needs and loves in Wolf Spring, especially in Jules and Camden (my two other favorites!), and her sisters are barely a blip in her life until their sixteenth birthday arrives and signals the beginning of the fight. Plus, Arsinoe is a little bit devil-may-care, woods gremlin, and practical to the bone, which makes her even better in my books. She’s sensible, thank you very much!
On the flipside, I couldn’t stand Katharine. I pity her, on one hand. She’s been abused by the Arrons her entire life as they try to mold her into the fourth poisoner queen in a row, and she’s accepted what they’ve forced on her, even though it’s clearly hurt her deeply. On the other hand, she never really seems to come into her own in Three Dark Crowns, going along with whatever anyone else suggests. She feels empty to me, filled with false agency that’s a front for the whims of the Arrons conveyed through her. I’d like to sympathize with her more, but unlike her sisters, she hasn’t given me much to make me root for her, or even connect with her at a basic level.
And the love interests? Oh god, end me now. I hate every single one of them. Joseph goes around saying Jules is the only one for him, then immediately fools around with Mirabella and keeps getting forgiven. Nope, hard pass. Meanwhile, Pietyr is a manipulative snake out for the power of the Black Council through Katharine, and I feel that he’s just another force pouring his will into Katharine rather than directing her to be her own queen. Not a huge fan of that.
And then Billy Chatworth is just plain dull, and I prefer to ship Arsinoe and Jules. But who’s really surprised on that count?
The most damning thing about Three Dark Crowns, though, is that the pacing is atrocious. For a story about queens competing for the crown, this first installment to the series is largely set-up, and the first full confrontation and display of powers (side note: boy, do I love the magic in this series; it’s kept the rating from dropping too far) doesn’t happen until the very end of the book. I’ve read some books that are on the slower side, but nothing that crawls at quite this snail’s pace. The payoff of the series better be unimaginably huge to redeem the poor start, if you ask me, but we’ll just have to wait and see how the other books pan out. And if I’ll DNF partway through, a rare thing. It’s possible, if the pacing continues like this, but I’m willing to offer a second chance for the time being.
Overall, two of the queens, one of the side characters, the magic system, and the overall concept have kept me drawn into Three Dark Crowns enough that I haven’t set it aside in disappointment. It remains to be seen whether the romance will improve in any measure, and whether the pacing will shake off the slow start, but I’m willing to read at least one more book in the series to see how well it goes. Hopefully in One Dark Throne, I’ll see more of the island’s history (I’m a sucker for lore, folks), and we’ll get to see more of the queen’s gifts on display, not to mention more of their abilities and loyalties tested.
Three Dark Crowns isn’t the worst book I’ve read, but it isn’t the best, either. If the rest of the series weren’t already published (especially if I’d picked this up when only Three Dark Crowns was out), I doubt I would continue, but the ease of access makes me willing to try.