This is a book that shouldn’t work, but it does. Magical duels. Revenge plots. Hidden identities. Predictable twists. And a love triangle to boot. None of this is new, some of it is often boring. So why did I enjoy The Crown’s Game so damn much?
Well, to start, there is no shortage of magic in this book. Don’t get me wrong: I like books that don’t have much magic too. Every once in a while, though, it’s nice to just go all out, like Evelyn Skye does here. The main characters and a handful of minor ones are constantly using magic to do, well, everything, from conjuring food to creating entire islands with vegetation and magical park benches that take you into dream worlds. The magic here can be small or big, but it is always wondrous.
Skye wastes little time getting into the thick of things. After introducing us to Vika and Nikolai, the Crown’s Game proper commences in short order. Vika’s magic is wild and elemental and energetic. She can conjure lightning, command ice, tame rivers. Nikolai’s magic is intricate, mechanistic, methodical. He can create amazing engineering structures, imbue automatons with simulated life. They complement each other so well, yet everyone else is very clear on this “no sharing the magic wellspring of power” rule: one of them is going to have to die.
While it’s obvious to anyone with half a brain that Vika and Nikolai are going to be a thing, I respect that Skye develops their attraction slowly. Not even the love triangle thrown in there manages to ruin this for me. Although Pasha is not all that convincing (he is such a dolt), it keeps things interesting, because of course it means that regardless of which enchanter wins the Game, Pasha is going to lose someone he cares about. And Skye has a lot of fun playing with the irony inherent in Pasha’s ignorance of Nikolai’s true identity. When he finally finds out and that wall goes up between them, coupled with his unexpected accession to the throne … oh boy, now that is a sharp and unmistakable transition into the final act.
When Aizhana first comes onto the scene, I questioned her relevance. She seemed like an appendix, never really interacting with the other characters or affecting the main plot—until the end, of course. Even so, I could have done without Nikolai being Pasha’s half-brother. I saw it coming pretty early on—and I’m not usually great at predicting things. It just doesn’t much to the story, beyond justifying Aizhana’s actions and thereby getting Pasha in a position where he has to end the Crown’s Game. Nikolai could just as easily have been the son of some random Russian soldier instead of throwing a bond of blood into the mix. I guess Skye was trying to really underscore the nature of the tragedy here, but I don’t think she needed this extra layer.
The true tragedy in The Crown’s Game lies in its masterful demonstration of how individuals are not always free to make their own choices. We are manipulated, constrained by, rules and systems not of our making. Pasha chafes at the restrictions that surround him as tsarevich and, later, makes decisions as tsar based on what he feels he must do for Russia, rather than for himself. Neither Vika nor Nikolai asked to be part of the Crown’s Game; neither wants to kill the other, not really—nevertheless, they have no choice but to participate in this cruel contest. All of these actions are motivated by the larger necessity of preserving Russia as an imperial force, one with a strong army, strong leader, and strong enchanter. The constant references to uprisings and skirmishes with the Ottomans remind us of the precariousness of Russia’s place as a power.
The climax of this book is intense, partly because you’re holding out hope until the last moment that they will find a way to cheat the game. It seems like Nikolai might have managed to escape death, to at least have escaped into “ante-death” as his mother calls it. Nevertheless, I like that Skye gives us a victor and Pasha a Pyrrhic victory. Whatever hopes he might have had regarding Vika are now shuttered: she can barely stand to be around him, and she requests space until she has to take up her official position of Imperial Enchanter. I’m intrigued by the possibilities that this leaves open for the sequel: it is much more interesting, of course, if the Enchanter doesn’t particularly like her Tsar. Moreover, Yuliana took an instant dislike to Vika at the ball, before she knew Vika was one of the two enchanters. I wonder if that dislike will carry over once Vika is in the employ of the royal family.
The Crown’s Game surprises, because on the whole there is nothing all that new or original about it. Indeed, Skye falls back on tropes that usually don’t do much for me. Somehow, though, the entire book comes together into a very enjoyable experience. The romance is a little forced, but other emotions feel very deep and real (Vika’s subdued state of depression following Sergei’s death, the fact she can’t just continue on as if everything is normal, really moved me). The two main characters approach magic in different ways, as a result of their upbringing and mentoring, yet ultimately they have very similar philosophies. I’m looking at some of the less-than-favourable reviews here and nodding in agreement with many of their points—yet I can’t help it; I liked this book, and I want to know what happens next!