The Third Daughter is Adrienne Tooley’s third novel, and the first of hers that I’ve read. In this young adult fantasy novel, the first in a series, religion, prophecy, sentiment and ambition collide with a sapphic romance and tangled loyalties.
In the country of Velle, a prophecy tells of the return of a godlike figure, the New Maiden. The New Maiden will return as the third-born daughter of a third daughter, and heal the world. That prophecy has now been fulfilled in the form of Brianne, thirteen-year-old third daughter of the queen of Velle, for whom the laws of inheritance were re-written. As the novel opens, she’s just ascended to her late mother’s throne, under the regency of her father, the head of Velle’s state Church.
This review contains spoilers.
Her eldest sister Elodie isn’t happy. Brianne taking the throne she could live with, if she were the one to guide her sister’s decisions until Brianne came of age, but to see Velle fall under the control of an increasingly blinkered, self-righteous and controlling Church is more than she can bear. She’s all of seventeen, so her choices in response to this are understandably rather impulsive: She acquires a powerful sleeping draught to make her sister fall into a sleep that could last for months, in the hopes that this will result in power passing to her.
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The Third Daughter
Spoiler! It merely allows Brianne’s father, the Chaplain, to announce that he speaks with the voice of the reborn New Maiden, who has ascended to a higher plane of consciousness to do her work. Now there’s no one to contradict him even slightly, Elodie can’t wake her sister up, and to add injury to insult, she’s now a wanted woman.
Sabine has always struggled with a powerful sadness, but the darkness that manifests itself in the changing colour of her veins also gives her an equally powerful talent: Her tears, after she goes a long enough period without crying, are magic. They enhance the potency of the tonics and potions her family brews in order to scrape a meagre living. Debt and the spectre of dispossession haunts her, her mother, and her siblings Katrynn and Artur: Her father, an inveterate and unlucky gambler, now away at sea, owes more money than it seems possible to ever repay. Sabine is the one who sells a potion to Elodie—but by mistake, she sells the vial containing all of her tears, instead, resulting in Brianne’s unintentionally unwakeable sleep. (There was supposed to be a counteragent, but it doesn’t work.) Now her family’s hope for income is lost, and she blames herself.
Elodie, faced with her plans gone awry, comes to her seeking a potion to wake Brianne back up. Sabine doesn’t know how to make such a thing, but in the face of Elodie’s desperation, and Elodie’s money, she pretends she does. She’ll figure something out. Probably. Maybe?
Forced by circumstance into close proximity, a mutual attraction begins to blossom. In Elodie’s company, Sabine feels seen for herself for the first time in her life. Meanwhile Sabine challenges Elodie in new ways, spurring her to acknowledge the deprivation and want in the heart of her kingdom.
But there are darker secrets in play. You’d think a third daughter of a third daughter would be a reasonably common occurrence—and you’d be right. It seems that for centuries the Church has been secretly killing off such daughters for their own reasons. Brianne is not the first potential New Maiden to be born, nor even the first such to survive her childhood. It turns out Sabine’s power has a far grander face than she ever imagined.
With factions within the Church willing to crown Elodie over her sister if she joins their secret anti-New Maiden cult, and Sabine’s power blooming into something that cannot be ignored, their fledgling relationship, already damaged by dishonesty, seems likely to be put to the test in the days to come.
Right up until the novel’s final quarter, I was absolutely enjoying the ride. Tooley has a strong voice, and the slow unspooling of attraction between Elodie and Sabine is delicately and skillfully drawn, which makes up for a number of issues I would otherwise find frustrating. Sabine’s growing confidence and willingness to confront her own feelings is dealt with well, and so are Elodie’s complicated love for, and jealousy of, her sister and her reluctant realisations about her privilege and the state of her mother’s kingdom. Their family situations parallel and contrast with each other in interesting ways: Sabine doesn’t think her family can see her for who she is, and Elodie also (with good reason) feels overlooked, while at the same time they both fail to pay a great deal of attention to how other members of their family feel about their situations.
But the last quarter tumbles developments and revelations together with jarring speed towards a hook for a sequel. Who is the Second Son? Why does the entire Church apparently secretly follow him? Why, if the leadership of the Church all follow him, has it been such a secret? This part of the novel doesn’t deal plausibly with the power-politics of Elodie’s sudden crowning at the hands of this secret cult, nor resolve certain other open questions. While the emotional heart of the story works well, in Elodie and Sabine’s relationships with each other and with their families, and while Tooley keeps the tension high and the pace kicking over, The Third Daughter fails to convince me outside this intimate and personal narrative level. On the level of intrigue and political conspiracy, it feels thin. That doesn’t give me confidence I’ll find the sequel satisfying.
Still, I’ll probably give it a try. I’ll forgive a lot for a good voice.
The Third Daughter is published by Christy Ottaviano Books.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. She was a finalist for the inaugural 2020 Ignyte Critic Award, and has also been a finalist for the BSFA nonfiction award. She lives in Ireland with an insomniac toddler, her wife, and their two very put-upon cats.