Title: The Crown’s Game (The Crown’s Game #1)
Author: Evelyn Skye
Publication date: 17th May 2016 (US) 30th June 2016 (UK)
The Crown’s Game, by Evelyn Skye, is another Truthwitch (by Susan Dennard). Not that they have anything at all in common—which they don’t, as it happens—but rather that this book is so hyped it’s unreal. And yet, as with Truthwitch: the hype is real.
There’s always a certain glee at reading a book that everyone is telling you you’re going to love, and then you actually do love. A tiny wee part of me was braced for disappointment. Not because anything about the book or the hype had put me off, but for two reasons: a) I’d rather be ready for the disappointment of a hyped book not quite hitting the spot and b) I always enter into books with a structured conflict (such as Vika and Nikolai’s duel to the death) with a thin veil of detachment, so I can figure out if it’s worth investing myself, when we’re pretty much told from the offset that someone is going to lose.
That veil did not last long.
Because this book is wonderful.
We’re introduced to an alternate Imperial Russia where magic is secret but real, and the time has come for Russia to once again appoint an Imperial Enchanter. Ordinarily, this is a simple task, with there being a single enchanter at any given time. Unfortunately for both Vika and Nikolai, who have been training their whole lives in preparation for being Imperial Enchanter to the Tsar, this time, things are a little different.
When there are two enchanters, the Crown’s Game must begin.
Vika has been raised on an island with her father, Sergei, and she knows nothing of the other enchanter out there. One day, she will be Imperial Enchanter and she will serve Russia, making her father proud. Nikolai, on the other hand, an orphan from the Kazakh Steppe who was bought from his village for a handful of livestock, has been raised and trained to be the best. Galina, Sergei’s sister, has been a ruthless mentor, giving nothing in the way of love or a comfortable life outside of dressing him for show and parading him as her dear little charity case.
Whilst Nikolai has been studying and mastering his magic through craft, engineering and more scientific ventures, Vika’s magic is all the wildness of natural energies and the very world around her. They are unalike in every way.
But it is time for the tsesarevich’s birthday, and to coincide with the beginning of the Game, both Vika and Nikolai are commanded to make their moves part of his birthday festivities. With no other guidelines given, the two enchanters are set against one another from the offset. And with their mentors whisked away to Siberia, they are left alone to participate in the Game.
Perhaps Nikolai stands a better chance of knowing how to make an impression, since he is best friends with the tsesarevich. But Pavel Alexandrovich Romanov knows nothing of his friend’s magic, or the Game, so even though they are close, things won’t be as simple as he might have hoped. In turn, Vika soon realises that she has caught the attention of Pasha, but with the tension of the Game and the growing fear for her life with each and every move of the Game, she might be too caught up in the magic to know how to use this to her advantage.
But in the end, it is the Tsar who will declare a winner, and he is stony and resolute. The Game will be played and an Imperial Enchanter will be appointed.
The Crown’s Game isn’t what it seems. It isn’t a bloodthirsty battle or a contest of egos or even wills. It’s, instead, a subtle and deep game that revolves entirely around the small cast and their feelings and relationships with one another. There are secrets and twists and revelations that, even if you cotton on a single page before the reveal, will make you go wide-eyed in surprise or clap about like a mad thing with glee (guilty—there might have been book-waggling/hugging). This book is a glorious feast for the senses, with delightful and extraordinary magic that exceeds both expectation and belief at every turn, making the reading of The Crown’s Game almost as exhilarating and wondrous as the Game played by Vika and Nikolai themselves.
The Crown’s Game is a stunning book with such heart and such strong characters, each in their own way. Vika is a fiery thing, whilst Nikolai has brooding, thoughtful edges. Pasha was a constant delight, even as he struggles to face up to the fact that one day he will be Tsar—and the realisation that his heart might be too soft for the role.
From the depth of the friendship between Pasha and Nikolai and the warmth of the relationship between Vika and Ludmila, this book is a pleasure to be immersed in, if only for the interactions between the characters and the way they shape and form the story. Yes, this is about magic and enchantments to make you beam with delight and gape with awe. Yes, this is about a deadly Game and a battle of wills. But it’s also so much more than that. The Crown’s Game is a story about discovery and about pushing the limits of who you are and how far you will go. It’s about finding just what it is that makes you, you, and a little bit of exploring the consequences of letting others make your decisions and sway your heart.
This book isn’t just set in historic Russia—it takes you there. You feel it in the streets, in the palaces, in the people who populate the world. From the mounting tensions of the lower and working classes, to the discomfort of those in the nobility who see the dangerous ground upon which the Tsardom treads, this is a book that really feels authentic. Which, given Skye’s love for Russia, isn’t a surprise at all. She nailed it.
At the end of the day, The Crown’s Game is about imagination and finding those little pieces of yourself in order to move one step closer to completing the puzzle of just who you are. It’s gorgeous, it’s exciting and it’s thrilling. It’s pure, pure magic.