Book Review: THREE DARK CROWNS by Kendare Blake

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Notes on Diversity/Inclusion

At least in my reading, this is not a very diverse or inclusive book. As far as I can recall, there are no queer characters. Fennbirn seems like a pretty white place. I’m sure class distinctions exist, but since the plot follows three would-be queens, we’re seeing Fennbirn through the eyes of the haves–doomed haves, bitter haves–but they are still haves.

There is an argument to be made that the book, however obliquely, provides disability in the form of two of the three queens. Mirabella’s sanity is questioned more than once. The impact this has on Mirabella, and the way this colors how others treat her in turn, is a decent reflection of the stigma many people with mental health issues face. And there is Katharine, the poisoner queen: her training requires her to imbibe poison after poison, leaving her frail and weak. The fragility of her body leaves her in a state of chronic pain and fatigue, which is itself a form of disability.

Content Warnings for Book

  • Katharine’s training, mentioned above, is laced with emotional and physical abuse. I’d argue that the training itself is abusive, since her guardians are feeding a child poison from a very young age, but on top of that, Katharine is pinched, and bruised, and belittled. Later she is subjected to emotional manipulation by yet another guardian (this time turned lover).
  • There is HELLA gaslighting in this book, y’all.
    • Mirabella is pretty much constantly subjected to gaslighting by everyone, all the time (see note above about her mental health).
    • Arsinoe ends up on the receiving end of gaslighting by her best friend Jules. Arsinoe, the naturalist queen, is far outstripped in naturalist magic by Jules, and turns to charms and spells–“low magic”– to make her powers appear greater than they are in her demonstration. Though this struck me as an entirely sensible course of action, Jules tells Arsinoe it’s beneath her and that she should be ashamed of herself.

Review

Book summary (from Goodreads):

When kingdom come, there will be one.

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.

The great strength of Three Dark Crowns is its worldbuilding. Fennbirn has weight and history. There is depth and detail here that satisfied my atlas-loving genealogy-craving nerdself. With every reveal of the intricacies of the setup, with every exception and twist, I wanted to know more history. I wanted to know about the great naturalist queens, and how the poisoner families had come to power in recent reigns, and how the elementalists hadn’t just blown them all to smithereens already.

The great weakness of me as a reader is that I overthink everything. So, even with worldbuilding as deep as this, there are still holes. There will always be holes. And when I am as delighted by the worldbuilding as I was with Three Dark Crowns, the seams will show a little harder. When I am left asking questions, I will be a little more bitter. The late-stage reveals of the book felt overly convenient and contrived given how thorough and organic the worldbuilding was throughout. Especially the final reveal, which had me questioning the supposed and demonstrated intelligence of a great many characters. If this was the case the whole time, then how was everything supposed to work?

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All of this is to say that Three Dark Crowns is exactly my kind of book: it is a sprawling, slow, and intensely character focused secondary world fantasy novel. It has very clear stakes: there are three potential queens, and only the most powerful will survive*. The book puts you right into the brains of each of the three queens, forcing you to sympathize with each, daring you to pick and root for a favorite. As each queen makes preparations for her last year of training, and possibly her last year alive, you learn more and more about the land they might rule if they live.

Each of the contender queens is well-drawn and compelling. Katharine has to her advantage the political machinations of the poisoner families, but alas, she is not herself a very strong poisoner. Mirabella is an enormously strong elementalist–but she is apparently unstable. And then there is Arsinoe, the underdog. The naturalists have no political power, and Arsinoe, though clever and quick, has no solid grasp of naturalist magic. All three queens have strengths, and all three queens have weaknesses. It’s anyone’s throne.

Blake takes her time with the book. Instead of urgency, she works with dread. She lets the inevitability of two people’s deaths permeate the pages, and we watch as each of the would-be queens deals with this horrible finality in her own way.

Takeaway & Rating

A slow burn horror of circumscribed lives and forced choices, Three Dark Crowns pits queen against queen. There’s a love triangle in there, but really you should read it for the zombie bear and all the variations on teenage dread.

4stars

*Obligatory Highlander reference below

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Book Review: THE MELANCHOLY OF RESISTANCE

yeah the cover doesn't really tell you what this baby is about

yeah the cover doesn’t really tell you what this baby is about

The Melancholy of Resistance (written by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes) is, to say the least, a very odd book. It is odd in content, in structure, in everything. A circus comes to a small Hungarian town and brings with it an uneasy malevolence. The circus features a taxidermied whale and a mysterious circus feature referred to as “The Prince” – but prince of who and what and why are never explained. The plot oozes along, first with a deep sense of foreboding as we watch a woman just past middle age get sexually harassed on a train, and then condenses around the beatific town idiot, Janos Valuska, and the recluse to whom Valuska is inexplicably drawn, Mr. Eszter. The atmosphere of unease sparks into mobs, riots, death, and nihilism, and the book ends with a peculiarly satisfying if opaque ending.

This is not an easy book to read. This is a demanding book that has to be met on its own terms, one that consumes you as much as you, the reader, consume it. I mean this is the best possible way: this is a book that assumes the best in its readers even as it presents a pessimistic view of the human race. It assumes that you are bright enough and capable enough and patient enough to let the story unfold as it needs to unfold. Really, reading The Melancholy of Resistance is like a magic trick: Krasznahorkai manages to cram a ton of seamless characterization and fluid plot development into a text with no paragraph breaks and remarkably little dialogue. The point of view hops back and forth between characters, but miraculously, it works. The way the book is written makes it hypnotic to read – the narrative washed over me, and I found myself reading it without paying very close attention, like the narrative insisted on easing into my mind through osmosis.

I definitely recommend the book, though with the caveat that it is work to read it, and the story, while fascinating, may leave you feeling a bit hollowed out. But it is a brilliant book, both in terms of what it has to say and how it says it.

A note about the kindle version: the formatting is terrible. I would recommend reading this in hardcopy if you get the option.

4/5 stars

well played, Mr. Krasznahorkai

*SPOILERY FURTHER ANALYSIS AFTER THE CUT*

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