Fiction is a powerful escape from the humdrum of reality. Naturally, readers are expected to suspend their disbelief if they wish to maximize the reading experience. When readers enter a story, they have an unspoken agreement with the book: I’ll accept the book’s version of reality as long as the book itself provides a reality that’s believable and consistent enough to get behind. Simple.
But there’s a catch. Even though it is fiction, stories should do the heavy lifting when it comes to suspending disbelief. Readers can’t and shouldn’t be expected to suspend all of their disbelief because then they’d just be a passive observer of the story’s events, barely critical of the characters, hardly conscious of what the story is trying to tell.
Fictional stories may not be real but that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any realistic elements in them. The best stories are grounded in a conceivable perception of reality which is why readers can easily get lost in those worlds – at some level, the fictional world feels solid enough that readers don’t need to stretch to imagine themselves in that reality. You can accept that a secret world of witches and wizards coexist with ours and that only a little orphan boy can save that magical world from crumbling. You can buy a young Texan girl trapped inside her house is blown away into a weird and colorful world with talking lions and heartless tin men. You can even believe that a small island kingdom can have triplet queens born every generation and that they must fight to the death for the crown on their 16th birthday. All of those fantastical concepts are fine on their own and don’t really need to provide an in depth lore to explain each and every how and why.
However, when a book only spews concepts and ideas without the least bit effort in the building of a logical reality… well, readers can suspend their disbelief only for so long.
Verisimilitude: A Vital Story Ingredient
Before I go on to explain the many reasons why I could never feel like I was in the world of Fennbirn (the nebulous fictional kingdom of Three Dark Crowns), let’s first talk about verisimilitude.
Verisimilitude (a mouthful, I know), in the most simple of terms, means believability. Google’s dictionary defines it as “the appearance of being true or real.” Take note that it doesn’t mean that a story has to be confined to our understanding of what constitutes as “realistic” or “believable” – just that it can give a plausible simulation of what can be realistic or believable in that fictional world.
In any given fictional work, it’s important that the author establishes verisimilitude in the story to sort of make the transition from reality (the real world) to fantasy (the story world) smoother for the reader. A verisimilitudinous book can make you feel like you’re not reading a story at all but are part of it. Books of that caliber masterfully redirect your attention from the cracks and holes of its world by giving you not just a very convincing version of its reality, but also a more enticing one that the reader is used to. The wizarding world of the Harry Potter books might be fraught with inconsistencies and disturbing implications but we all dream of going to Hogwarts anyway because who doesn’t want to be a wizard/witch? Westeros’ climate might be scientifically unsound – long stretches of winter must affect the flora and fauna, right? – but who cares about that when there’s juicy political intrigue in King’s Landing?
When a writer introduces outlandish elements to their story like wizards and fairies, they have to make it clear in no uncertain terms that the story world has wizards and fairies. The writer doesn’t need to explain why this is so or how these magical beings came to be – writers just have to tell us that we’re not in Kansas anymore. We willingly suspend our disbelief of wizards and fairies as long as the book does its part in showing us a reality where these magical beings can exist and how they effect such a world.
What Three Dark Crowns does is give us this premise of three queens battling it out for the throne but puts together a weak and ultimately illogical story world that almost nothing holds up upon actual inspection. Three Dark Crowns keeps telling you to believe that the world the story is set in is real but doesn’t lay down a proper foundation of its verisimilitude.
In this Book Talk, I’m going to explain the Three Big Problems with Three Dark Crowns, specifically in relation to its verisimilitude (or, let’s face it, lack thereof). I won’t tackle the book’s story elements in too much detail – or we’ll be here all day – but I will roughly summarize why, even with the book’s shoddy internal world logic, the book itself is just… bad.
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.
1. Fennbirn is As Vague as it is Illogical
Besides the lackluster descriptions of the general landscape of the kingdom – what little we get gives us only a very generic medieval kingdom vibe – Fennbirn as a fantasy world doesn’t make much sense. I’ve read a lot of high fantasy stories in recent years yet for the life of me I can’t figure out how anything in Fennbirn is supposed to work. Fennbirn’s world feels so flimsy it’s practically translucent.
Everything just seems so slapdash, like the book expects you to just buy that this world could ever be a reality just because it’s a fantasy book. To prove my point, allow me to talk about the facets of the world of Fennbirn that are so awkward and messy that they repeatedly call attention to themselves.
To give Three Dark Crowns credit, I rather appreciated how matriarchal the religious beliefs the society of Fennbirn is. The Temple – yes, quite an imaginative name – worships one goddess whom they simply call Goddess – notice a pattern? – so it makes sense that there would only be priestesses running the whole thing.
From afar, Three Dark Crowns has an intriguing monotheistic religion but then you read more about them and notice how clumsily put together this crucial aspect of the world was.
For starters, the book repeatedly tells us that the Temple holds a lot of power among the common folk. The Temple has so much sway over public opinion that the Arrons, the most powerful house and poisoner family in the kingdom, are constantly on their guard. The book really piles it on that the queenly battle royale is but a veneer for the real battle between the chur- I mean, the Temple and the sta- the poisoners. Very subtle.
Religion plays a key part in this book yet I was never convinced that the Temple was as revered or had that much influence as the narrative keeps pushing. How can anyone possibly believe that when no character – other than the priestesses – ever go to temple or talk about going to the temple or even give any indication of their faith to the Goddess and to the Temple. Plus, there aren’t even references to any type of Temple service. The impression I got was that the Temple had only a few pilgrims yet we’re supposed to believe that the priestesses are so vital to Fennbirn that they can somehow get away with literal murder.
If Fennbirn was heavily controlled by the Temple, why don’t we see it in the common folk’s practices and manners of speech? Why doesn’t anyone ever bring up the Goddess other than for explaining why the three queens can’t leave the island? No one even praises the Goddess or swears on her. You know what the High Priestess of the Temple is called? Luca. The character’s NAME. The highest authority of the Temple… doesn’t get a sacred title, doesn’t even get called High Priestess for most of the time. As a Catholic, I recoiled when a novice called the High Priestess by her name. In the real world, even the least religious person in the room won’t/can’t call a priest or a nun by their birth name.
Basically, the Temple has all the trappings of a generic monotheistic religion – the long robes, the indirect power, the priestesses giving up their personal freedom for their faith – but the book just doesn’t have any understanding of why organized religion can have so much power over the people. Titles aren’t just titles. They’re reaffirmations that this person is, in some way, a religious authority figure that should be respected. It’s such a simple thing and yet Three Dark Crowns overlooked it.
I was going to go on about the traditions that the Temple upholds but I think I’ve went on long enough. I will say this though… this book has the least imaginative names I’ve ever read. They’re so uninspired that they sound like parodies of themselves. The Hunt. The Disembarking. The Quickening. I kid you not, those are three of the events of the all important Beltane Festival.
Normally, I wouldn’t care so much about the intricacies of a fictional kingdom’s government since I’m well aware that kings and queens themselves aren’t the real power behind the crown. There’s always a council of powerful men and women that handle the bulk of running the country. Three Dark Crowns is no different since Fennbirn has the Black Council that rules the country until a new queen is crowned. Makes sense so far.
But then we find out that once a queen gives birth to the next triplet queens, she’s essentially exiled from her own land. The reason being that the Goddess has decided that the old queen has already fulfilled her duty of creating the next line of queens so… bye? A Fennbirn queen can’t even choose to be single forever because they’re wedded to a “mainlander” almost immediately after they’re crowned.
There’s a lot to unpack here. First off, what this system entails is that a queen can only rule for a few years until they inevitably get pregnant. And even if the book insinuates that the Goddess controls when the queen get pregnant – because, if Three Dark Crowns succeeds in anything it’s showing us readers that the Goddess is real and means business – there’s just something so impractical with such a short reign. The reason why monarchs are such a big deal in the first place is because their rule lasts so long. A monarch can stay in power for as long as they’re alive! Or at least until they abdicate. Having a monarch on the throne only for as long as they don’t have kids is really… weird.
The way this government system operates, the average person will bow to several queens in their lifetime. And that turnover period! Let’s say a new queen sits on the throne for five years before they give birth to triplets. Then the kingdom will be left queenless for the next sixteen years until a new queen is crowned. And the cycle goes on and on and on.
Why couldn’t the former queen stay until the triplets come of age? That would at least give them a decade or two of rule. Exiling the former queen once the triplets come seems so contrived. The book could have killed off the current triplets’ mother (and father?) before the start of the story if it really needed the parents gone. Heck, that’s what Disney does. Why even have a queen if they’re constantly replacing them? Why even have a monarchy when the kingdom is most of the time controlled by the council?
I’m sure there’s supposed to be something tragic about how the system that puts the queen in place is also what kicks them out of power but… honestly, it’s just dumb.
The last thing that I want to talk about the society of Fennbirn is how illogical it is to have the poisoners – families that know how to poison and can ingest poison… that’s it – are the most powerful faction in the island when there are people who can literally control the elements and nature itself.
Yes, you can say that the poisoners are cunning and ruthless, poisoning their way to the top of the food chain but… how? Short of poisoning every naturalist and elemental family until only poisoner families remain, there’s no conceivable reason why the poisoners could gain so much power. They don’t even have an easy means to get rich since poisoning is such a niche industry.
Granted, before the events of the book began, the two previous queens were poisoners and they stuffed the Black Council with their people so they’d have all the control but I still don’t see how they could stay in control the way they do. Think of it in practical terms. Poisoners don’t have ay control over the kingdom’s food source but naturalists can hold the next harvest hostage. Poisoners don’t have any power over the land or the sea but elementals can summon storms or burn down towers if need be. Poisoners aren’t shit yet the way the book treats them, they’re incredibly powerful and not to be trifled with. Their gift isn’t even all that special since anyone can develop an immunity to poison over time.
Which brings me to my next point…
2. the magic system has no rhyme or reason
A good rule of thumb for when it comes to designing magic systems is to try to balance each power or ability. The best example of this is the beloved animated series, Avatar: The Last Air Bender (and its follow-up series). People in that world, apart from the Avatar, can either control only one element or none at all. The show makes it abundantly clear that no element is definitively more powerful than any of the others. Sure, the Fire Nation took over but that was because of their ambition and strategy, not from their bending powers alone. Each element has its strengths and weaknesses and it’s the skill of the bender that really matters. Even air bending, the most seemingly docile of elements, was shown to be dangerous when harnessed a certain way. The first Avatar ended more than a decade ago but people still return to the series because it’s so captivating and exciting. The fact that fans clamour for more of that world is a testament to how rich its worldbuilding and how intoxicating its magic system was.
The magic system in Three Dark Crowns, on the other hand, is… bizarre. Not only is the magic system grossly imbalanced, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for such disproportion either.
I know I already went on about how inconsequential the gift of poisoning is when juxtaposed with controlling nature or the elements but… Let me go on some more. See, this poisoning gift really pales in comparison to the other gifts in this world yet it’s treated with a gravitas that the elemental gift or the naturalist gift lacks. Somehow the people of Fennbirn take it for granted that poison is an intimate weapon that can be easily thwarted as long as one avoids any direct contact with the poisoner.
Even as an escapist fantasy, I can’t understand why anyone would want to see themselves as a poisoner when all that would entail is a hardy stomach against poisons. There is no appeal to poisoning other than some superficial edgy claptrap. The poisoners might delude themselves into thinking that they’re so menacing but, when it all comes down to it, if the book’s magic system followed a single strand of verisimilitude, poisoners wouldn’t stand a chance against the other gifted folk. Honestly, poisoners would have been the outcasts, the jokes, not the top dogs.
I literally laughed out loud when, near the end of the book, the three queens had to show off their gifts. Mirabella, the elemental, was a full spectacle, fire and wind and thunder all around. Arsinoe, the naturalist, called forth a full sized bear and tamed it in front of everyone. And Katharine, the poisoner? She ate a banquet of poisoned food. That’s it. That’s her ability. Also, you just have to trust that it’s poisoned because it is. Promise.
I don’t understand why the book stops at mere poisoning when it could have easily have it as a mind-control gift. It could even be a higher form of poisoning – of the mind instead of the body. To be fair, there’s a line in the book that suggests that poisoning (and all the other gifts) is actually more than it appears – poisoning used to be for healing instead of, well, poisoning – and maybe the next book will address it but… I honestly can’t get over how ridiculous this poisoning gift is. Or how no one in the book realizes how powerless poisoners are.
Additionally, the magic system of this book is, to be frank, just so boring. This book doesn’t really do anything special with the type of magic it has. It’s so generic that I doubt I’d even remember it if not for writing this post.
3. Too many Characters, Too Much Information, Not Enough Plot
The final nail in the coffin for Three Dark Crowns is just how unbearably one-dimensional and dull the characters were. If the book had a bad story but interesting characters, I wouldn’t have been so frustrated. But there isn’t a single character in this book that I really gave a damn about. The fact that we get more than half a dozen characters with their own POV chapters doesn’t help either. I’d list down the different characters we get into the heads of but, honestly, we jump around perspectives so many times, some for like a page or so, that it’s hard to tell whose POV really matters in the grand scheme of things.
Three Dark Crowns handles its large cast of characters very poorly. No one character stands out and we don’t spend that long with a character to grow to care for them. What’s worse is how obvious the author’s hand was in manipulating characters to do this or that. Characters literally change motivations at the drop of a hat. Perhaps if the book focused only on the three girls, the queens, we’d get a better understanding of them and maybe even warm up to them. Unfortunately, we have to be privy to literally everything that happens everywhere and what every character thinks about at all times.
What’s even worse is the character relationships in this book. We’re repeatedly told that this character is so fond of this other character but we don’t really see why. Friendships feel manufactured and romantic relationships are just downright mechanical. I’d go on about one “romance” in particular but this Book Talk is already long enough as it is.
The reason why the entire story of this book felt so convoluted was because we, the readers, know too much. We know that the Temple is planning something drastic. We know that the Arrons had more a hand in the battle more than people suspect. We know that characters were as weak as they were rumored to be. And because we knew everything, we could see through the cogs of the machine, taking away the magic of the story.
The book doesn’t believe in suspense or subtlety. Information isn’t withheld but is spoon fed to the reader. We know so much that the events in the book are transparent. By telling us the thoughts of every single key player in the book, there’s never a moment where we suspect that something else might be afoot. What we see is what we get. As far as storytelling goes, it’s really dull.
More importantly, the plans and schemes of the characters rely almost entirely on happenstance and luck. There’s no real strategy behind them. While I didn’t go into this book expecting it to be on the same level as Game of Thrones, I also didn’t think I’d be reading a dressed up high school drama. Not a good one either.
To summarize, Three Dark Crowns failed to maintain verisimilitude because its worldbuilding was too vague and wishy-washy, its magic system was too disproportionate and uninspired, and its large cast of POV characters quashed any possibility of mystery. Do I believe that the series can redeem itself in future installments? Honestly? I don’t think so. The problems that I have with it are too fundamental that short of the sequel disavowing all of the events that happened in the first book as a main character’s fever dream, I doubt I’d ever find this series enjoyable.
That being said, I’m aware that a lot of people liked this book. This series is still ongoing and doing quite well… I think. Honestly, I do see the appeal of this book, especially nowadays with an audience ravenous for for fantasy books with fighting royals. However, I just can’t get into the reading experience when I can’t even buy that Fennbirn could exist as a reality. Three Dark Crowns is too detached from its own verisimilitude that nothing in it could ever be real for me. I couldn’t invest any emotions in the characters because I was always consciously aware that they’re fictional people living in a fictional world.
If any of you have read this book or follow this series, what are your thoughts? Did you enjoy it? Did you not? What book have you read that just soured your experience when you realized how fundamentally unrealistic the world and the characters are? Sound off on the comments below!