Title: The Crown’s Game
Author: Evelyn Skye
Length: 399 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ½
In every generation, an enchanter is born who will help guide and protect both the tsar of Russia and the vast Russian Empire itself. Sometimes, however, Russia’s ancient magic is split between two young enchanters, a twist of fate that promises power and glory to one–and death to the other. Such is the case for Vika, a girl raised outside the city to attune her power to wild elemental forces, and Nikolai, whose urban upbringing has directed his magic into fine mechanical and technical skills. With threats looming on all sides of his empire, the Tsar Alexander initiates the Crown’s Game, in which Vika and Nikolai will compete to become his Imperial Enchanter. As each of them tries to win–and to stay alive–they struggle with loss, love, and hard lessons about themselves and those they once considered friends.
Reading this one was a whirlwind adventure, that’s for sure. It has a lot going for it: lush historical setting, some wild fantasy, and a few interesting twists and turns along the way. Unfortunately, it also has mostly so-so characters, many of whom were involved in a dull love story (uh, love stories?). Still, The Crown’s Game has its charm, and it charmed me well enough that I kept flipping pages–enough that I wanted to pick it up again every time I put it down. Not a bad way to start the new year!
The premise is bit like my last favorite YA read, Three Dark Crowns, though I admit I wasn’t actually expecting Skye to follow through and “kill her darlings.” She showed just enough willingness to do so in the first two thirds of the book that I did feel genuine tension going into the final act, though, which was a plus given that it’s a fight to the death between the two MCs to become Imperial Enchanter.
Of the MCs, I definitely preferred Vika (aka Victoria Sergeyevna Andreyeva , because I like Russian names with all their extra flourishes), and it seems like the author does as well. I can see why she might be considered a Mary Sue, and certainly she grated at my nerves on occasion, but I found her powers and her whole backstory the more interesting of the two enchanters. Nikolai, the Kazakh-born orphan raised in Saint Petersburg and convenient BFF of the tsarevich…well, I could take him of leave him. He isn’t a horrible narrator in his POV chapters, just a bit dull. At some point, his bestie (the aforementioned heir to the throne) tells him: “You’re better than everyone at everything, and you don’t even try. You’re a better dancer, a better swordsman, a better scholar. Girls fall at your feet, and you don’t seem to care. You excel at everything, whereas I’m only adequate.” And that sums up how blah and, well, Sue-like Nikolai was for me. It’s just a shame, because before the Game starts, they both show potential, like they might be developing into really solid characters. Nikolai’s best friend is Pasha, the tsar’s disguise-loving, responsibility-spurning son. He’s a sweetheart, and I found his love for the people and his dislike for formality and ceremony endearing, but his father and sister have a point (though it’s of course taken over-the-top for dramatic purposes): he’s just too soft. Knowing even the bare minimum about Russian history, I can say that soft, gentle souls did not make great tsars.
Most of the rest of the cast is unmemorable, though Vika’s slightly eccentric and maternal baker friend is a breath of fresh air. I did absolutely loathe Pasha’s hard-ass sister, Yuliana, who is supposed to be just fifteen but speaks and behaves like a cold, calculating, pushy woman twice that age. She always rang false to me, although she is a very minor character, thank God.
I loved the idea–that the tsars had Imperial Enchanters to help them rule their enormous empire and that, when two enchanters were born in a generation, they basically have to flaunt their skills until the tsar chooses between them, and then one dies so that the Imperial Enchanter has access to all of Russia’s magic. Call me crazy, but given everything I’ve ever learned about Russian history and culture, I can and did buy it. It helps that Evelyn Skye does a wonderful job crafting her Saint Petersburg setting. Her writing isn’t always remarkable, but it is quite readable and even pretty in places. She offers us a taste of both the opulence and the squalor, the reverence and the dissent, of imperial Russia in its heyday, almost a century before world war and the Revolution turned everything on it head.
Overnight, the leaves fell off all the trees, and the arctic wind blew in. Frost settled on bare branches, and birds made plans to migrate south. The canals iced over mid-color, and the fountain in the Neva froze in clear arcs of cold crystal. When the sun rose in the morning, its pale yellow rays were so weak, they couldn’t even melt an icicle. Although it was only the middle of November, winter had arrived in Saint Petersburg. (339)
The plot moves a little slowly–or rather, it moves in fits and bursts–but I liked that the slowest bits are supplemented with the doings of minor characters such as the tsar and Vika’s father (of whom I really wish we could’ve seen more). Some of the twists she throws in there, I could’ve done without. None of them made me actually roll my eyes, but I came close once. No spoilers, but I’ll just say that I felt like Nikolai was already Special (TM) enough. If either MC was going to get still more backstory, why not Vika? I suppose I’ll just have to wait for the sequel.
My only major complaint about the book deals with the romance. Well, romances. Whatever. Yes, there’s a love triangle (or…uh, love square–both Vika and Nikolai have two potential love interests), but its execution didn’t bother me as much as some YA triangles do. No, it’s more that the angle Skye chooses to go with is predictable and boring: two characters feel a “connection” from the moment they meet. It’s not quite instalove, but it’s dangerously close. They can’t and shouldn’t even want to be together, but their feelings! You know the drill. Honestly, I saw it coming, but I just never felt the chemistry between them. (sigh) Fortunately the romance doesn’t directly take up a great deal of the book, and I enjoyed the rest of it enough to just skim those bits and overlook them. The non-romantic relationships, such as between Vika and her father and Nikolai and Pasha, are much more effective.
Despite its imperfections, my experience reading The Crown’s Game was mostly a positive one. It’s far from a perfect book, but if you’re at all interested in Russian history and culture, I’d say that it’s intriguing and, well, enchanting enough to be worth your time. I’m just hopeful that the characters will undergo some much-needed development in the sequel, which I’ll definitely be picking up.