Vika Andreyev and Nikolai Karimov have trained all their lives to become the Tsar’s enchanter. But to achieve this destiny, they must participate in the Crown’s Game, an ancient duel of magical skill of which there can be only one winner. The one who proves themselves the more skilled becomes the Imperial enchanter, the loser is sentenced to death. For both, the game is the opportunity to show their skill, to live up to their potential. But Vika and Nikolai soon find that their bond with magic also creates a bond between them. To make matters more complicated, Nikolai’s best friend Pasha, who is also heir to the throne, begins to fall for Vika as well. With the threat of the Ottoman Empire and the Kazakhs on the horizon, the game must go forward, but as secrets are uncovered Vika and Nikolai will have to choose to fight for their lives or to destroy each other.
From the jacket copy on this book, I was expecting a fantasy romance involving a love triangle, so I wasn’t entirely thrilled to be reading this book (in case you haven’t gathered from my previous posts, I’m not a big fan of YA romances). However, I am happy to report that it wasn’t all pining over one another and forbidden trysts. In fact, author Evelyn Skye makes the relationship between Vika and Nikolai was more about finding belonging in one another through shared experience anything else. They may be star-crossed, but they aren’t Romeo and Juliet. They remain individuals throughout. Pasha’s interaction served to complicate the matter, but – to my relief – I did not find the novel was trying to create a Team Nikolai/Team Pasha type competition. Vika is not overwhelmed by the choice between the two, and her awareness of the game is always prevalent in her thoughts of the future. So all in all, the romance elements were tolerable and even enjoyable at times.
While I give the novel credit for deviating from my expectations of a YA romance, I found its real strength came from the sense of place that Skye creates with her writing. I’ve never been to Russia or read much about the country, so I can’t verify accuracy. However, I found Skye’s world building both detailed and realistic and I appreciated that there appeared to be no difference between the real places she includes and the ones she creates. I believe this ability comes from researching well and her passion for Russian history and literature.
One of the most interesting parts of reading fantasy is finding out how magic works in a given literary world. There are usually checks and balances in place that limit magical abilities so that those who practice it can’t, for example, go about raising their loved ones from the dead (easily and without consequence). That said, I found the magic system in The Crown’s Game unique in that magic is limited by factors external to an enchanters skill and is tied to the land itself. Russia’s magic is for Russian enchanters, and there’s only enough for one Imperial enchanter – thus the game. Skye provides just enough background information to know that this wasn’t always the case and that magic has faded as people stopped believing in it, but she does not delve too deeply into the back story. While I would have loved to read bit more about the history of magic at its height in Russia, these limiting factors certainly made for an interesting setting for Nikolai and Vika to meet and compete in. There were a few odd things about the “rules” of magic that seemed unclear to me – conjuring vs mending in particular (why sew clothing with magic, when you could summon complete clothing?) – but these small factors did not distract from the whole too much.
Another thing I liked about this novel was that it seemed as though, despite a few loose ends, it could stand alone. There is a sequel planned, but The Crown’s Game wraps up pretty well (though I imagine many will find it a bitter ending). I won’t say exactly why I was satisfied with the ending, lest I give some spoilers, but it worked for me. Even so, I think I’ll be following up with Vika and the rest of the cast in the next novel.
Final verdict: It may not be perfect, but The Crown’s Game is a good debut from author Evelyn Skye. It’s setting is unique and lends itself well to the magical elements. Plus, you don’t have to be a romance fan to enjoy the plot.