I have been loyally following Kendare Blake’s Three Dark Crowns (TDC) series since Three Dark Crowns (#1) was published in September 2016. As personal preferences go, Three Dark Crowns seemed to be right up my alley; I liked the darker, intense fantasy, especially if it features an interesting magic system.
Rating: 3/5 Stars
Note: spoiler-free for Five Dark Fates until otherwise stated.
Unfortunately, there were some flaws to the series as a whole. I can’t help but wonder if Blake meant it to be a duology until the series kicked off and the publishers asked for more, because the series could have ended after One Dark Throne (#2).
Overall, I was disappointed with Five Dark Fates, primarily with the focus on the more supernatural elements of the story. Blake attempted to convince the readers during the previous three books that Katherine, Arsinoe, and Mirabella are incapable of killing each other because they simply aren’t made for it. This, however, led to questions on its own: Surely, they can’t be the first who refused to kill each other?
But with the sisters now knowing and remembering the love they used to have for one another in the Black Cottage, the options were to either kill them anyway, or find a new antagonist. The mist and the dead queens of old took over the role, attaching themselves to Katherine to continue making her look like the antagonist while also trying to paint her as a girl who is in way over her head. The two images were not well-reconciled.
I will say that the pacing of Five Dark Fates was impressive. It was obvious that the narrative was leading up to a big battle as the finale, but the characters remained proactive throughout the book. Not once did it feel like they were just acting around to fill up page space before the battle. There were a few elements that could have been cut, one in particular involving an old temple, but the actions that all of the characters took felt like natural responses. All worked towards discovering answers to questions, in regards to the mist, the queens of old, and the right to rule.
Unfortunately, both the mist and the dead queens were conflicts that I could care little about. The exact nature of their existence was never full explained, and it came across as something added in to raise the stakes or give credence to the rebel’s cause, both of which could have been achieved without. And the final battle was too chaotic, its timeline too disjointed, for it to be remotely immersive.
Three dark sisters, fair to be seen. Two to devour and one to be queen.Well-known saying within the TDC.
Finally, the relationships between characters were not compelling enough to captivate my attention. I thought Billie’s arc ended interestingly, in a way that most YA fantasy novels wouldn’t do, but his connection to Arsinoe felt tenuous. I didn’t feel their chemistry. Pietyr and Katherine have had their own strange relationship, and I did find theirs to feel like a proper connection, but even Jules’s mourning of Joseph, or Emilia’s role in this book, fell flat.
Overall, it wasn’t necessarily that Five Dark Crowns was poorly written. It was more that it had been stretched past its due. I was ambivalent towards the plot and its characters by this point, and the conclusion of the series undermined the work laid out in the books prior.
Now, as I follow the philosophy that reading books makes our writing better, I’d like to use the rest of the book review as a chance to discuss in depth some of the failings of Five Dark Crowns, using the TDC series as a case study for fellow aspiring fantasy writers. Warning: Spoilers abound.
Writing “A Break in the Cycle” Trope
The trope is when our normal main protagonist(s) find themselves in a situation where they have the power to break the status quo on a large scale, and so, create great change. Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games follows the same trope, where a girl who is otherwise powerless finds herself thrown at the head of a revolution that topples the Capitol regime. The trope works here because it’s hinted throughout the series that there has been unrest and a quiet rebellion long before Katniss defies the Capitol on live TV. Her character growth is also never corrupted; she is very clearly inequipped to lead a rebellion, and does the best she can, sometimes following the advice of others to protect those she loves, and other times, taking a huge risk to go against her own self-interest.
The most important thing that this trope must accomplish is explain, early on, why these events are taking place now. What is it about this character, or these characters, that puts them in a place where they can spark such change? Five Dark Fates does not satisfy this requirement. We know that the main characters shown here are not the first to refuse to kill one another; we’re given Daphne and Illian from the past. Surely there are others who refused, or found themselves incapable. So why are Arsinoe, Mirabella, and Katherine the ones who end the line of queens for good? Why is Jules given the crown?
One could argue Katherine and her dead queens are the breaking point, especially with the mist rising up against her. But the dead queens are an old thing, and the mist is relatively new. I might also add that it’s hard to believe no one’s been thrown into the Breccia Domain before this, that Katherine is the first queen to be allowed to “fall.” My biggest pushback, however, is that they cited the corruption of the queensblood to be the reason the tradition ultimately had to end, but if that corruption refers to Katherine’s alliance with the dead queens, it should have resolved itself by killing Katherine rather than completely overthrowing centuries-old traditions.
Promise Change, Follow Through
Connected to the previous point, Five Dark Fates likewise stumbles because it suggests that everything will be different by the end of the series. These three queens have fought against each other and worked with each other, both. They’d been given countless opportunities to follow tradition and kill their sisters so that one could take the crown. And yet, the narrative conflicts with itself. Katherine is named Queen Crowned before her siblings are dead, defying tradition, and, perhaps worse, by the end of the last book, two of the sisters are dead and one remains alive, which should have resulted in her own crowning.
I think that, in TDC’s case, Mirabella’s death was the crux of the issue. Arsinoe was the sole survivor, and it was implied from the get-go that Katherine would not make it out of this alive. Having all three queens die in the fight would have been one valid solution, but, excepting that, having Mirabella get killed off in Two Dark Reigns would have set the stakes for the final book while also allowing the deaths to be staggered, especially because Mira died by Katherine’s hand and Katherine died by Arsinoe’s, making Arsinoe the rightful ruler. As it stands, it reads like The Hunger Games would have read if Coin had been given charge of the country after the rebellion’s success, but Suzanne Collins promised change in her narrative, and by having Katniss kill Coin, she delivered on that promise.
Toying with Point of View
In terms of Mirabella’s death, one of the most obvious lessons we can learn from TDC is that perspective is everything. When the narrative already utilizes multiple points of view, when it comes to a scene where one character betrays another, it’s important to test out different points of views in that scene to make sure that you choose the one that is best equipped to explain the conflicting emotions behind something as intense as an accidental betrayal. Especially when one character is dead by the end of the scene.
I don’t think Mirabella’s PoV was the right choice. I think it was the most obvious, because Katherine attacks her, and she is stunned and confused and afraid of the dead queens. But, conversely, we also have Katherine, who obviously did not desire to kill Mira, and who did it as a mercy in the end. Her perspective on the death likely would have been vastly more compelling, because she’d already been on the fence about whether or not she could trust Mira, yet in the end she felt guilty because the dead queens had forced her hand before she could make that judgment.
Combining Several Different Magics
I don’t want to delve too deeply into this point because I intend on writing a setting study before too long for Fennbirn, but I wanted to point out that the series features several types of magic systems all wrapped into one: Elemental and naturalist are rather popular and well-used, as are the seers. The war-gift isn’t exactly considered a magic system in most books, but it’s been seen before. The use of “poisoner” as a magical ability was intriguing, and I hope to see more of it in other books.
That said, I do want to briefly note that the seers proved absolutely useless to the narrative. It’s mentioned that their power is weak since any seer queens have been killed at birth for a long time, but their oracles gave prophecies and predictions that were too vague yet too connected to what the characters asked after that they were pointless add-ins. Prophecies are not easy to write because they must toe the line between actually being useful while also being so vague that the characters often can’t determine its meaning until after the prophecy is fulfilled.
To that point, they should also be used sparingly. There are only two things you can do with prophecies. You can write them so that even the readers are hopefully surprised by the outcome, using them as clues of sorts that the reader must try to piece together with the characters. Generally, this requires subversion of the expectation of the prophecy’s meaning. Or, you can write the prophecy in a way that subverts the idea of all prophecies. Either way, even a well-written prophecy can make the narrative too predictable for the reader.
Adding Queer Characters
Lastly, I just want to point out that the series does add in a few queer characters. The warriors seem pretty open minded about the concept, as Margaret Beaulin (apologies, I have probably spelled her name wrong) was implied to have been lovers with Emilia’s mother, and Emilia herself is in love with Jules. Unfortunately they appear to be the only ones.
Jules herself, I cannot count in good conscience. She hesitates to commit to any feelings with Emilia, but the circumstances around that hesitation muddies Jules’s character. One could argue that she is bisexual, because she liked Joseph and never explicitly said she didn’t like girls too, but Jules also never acts in a way that would suggest to the reader she might secretly like girls. Her hesitation to commit to Emilia compounds that. It honestly reads as if Blake wanted more diversity and attempted to shoe-horn some in by letting Jules come across as potentially bi.
Diversity is good, always. Representation matters, and bisexuality does not often make an appearance in fantasy books. So I can’t exactly be angry about it, but it’s worth mentioning that it’s a little sleazy. Authors, decide from the beginning who your character is going to be and stick with it.
As a final note, I’ve been toying with my book review formats recently. I don’t normally read book reviews to determine if I want to read a book or not; I usually just look at its average rating if I’m on the fence about it, to avoid any unwanted spoilers. However, I understand that some people find the spoiler-free section useful, so, here’s my question for you: do you prefer the spoiler-free and -filled sections of this particular format? Or do you like the other format better, as seen in the Supernova and The Gathering Storm reviews? I’m eager to write posts that will actually help you, the reader, so please, let me know in the comments below!