The Book Itself: I love the imposing architecture formed into a crown! And I like that it is slightly off-center. Overall, a very solid, intriguing cover.
My Review: Vika Andreyeva can summon the snow and turn ash into gold. Nikolai Karimov can see through walls and conjure bridges out of thin air. They are enchanters—the only two in Russia—and with the Ottoman Empire and the Kazakhs threatening, the Tsar needs a powerful enchanter by his side.
And so he initiates the Crown’s Game, an ancient duel of magical skill—the greatest test an enchanter will ever know. The victor becomes the Imperial Enchanter and the Tsar’s most respected adviser. The defeated is sentenced to death.
Raised on tiny Ovchinin Island her whole life, Vika is eager for the chance to show off her talent in the grand capital of Saint Petersburg. But can she kill another enchanter—even when his magic calls to her like nothing else ever has?
For Nikolai, an orphan, the Crown’s Game is the chance of a lifetime. But his deadly opponent is a force to be reckoned with—beautiful, whip smart, imaginative—and he can’t stop thinking about her.
And when Pasha, Nikolai’s best friend and heir to the throne, also starts to fall for the mysterious enchantress, Nikolai must defeat the girl they both love… or be killed himself.
As long-buried secrets emerge, threatening the future of the empire, it becomes dangerously clear… the Crown’s Game is not one to lose.
The Crown’s Game is trying to have aspects of Leigh Bardugo’s The Grisha Trilogy and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. The key word here is trying. Two magicians in a high stakes battle for who can make the most ooh-worthy attraction = The Night Circus. Quasi-Russian setting with just a few Russian vocabulary words thrown in there for color = The Grisha Trilogy. In theory, that would make one hell of a great story. In execution…it falls pretty flat.
Both The Grisha Trilogy and The Crown’s Game are about as Russian as beginners level Rosetta Stone: here are some words in Russian. Here is a description of a scene you might find in Russia. Here is some sort of real, sort of fictionalized Russian history. It tries to lend a spicy, frostbitten mystery to the novel, when really I just get confused. The island Vika grows up on kind of sound like the rural Michigan I saw when I visited my grandparents when I was little. St. Petersburg, where the competition takes place, sounds like any number of vaguely-European city – Amsterdam, maybe. Or even Venice. You could plop the characters in any place – America, Europe, even Asia, and it doesn’t seem like it would make a difference. The setting either needs to be much stronger, or much vaguer (if that makes sense).
As for this supposedly deadly competition: our protagonist’s hormones seem to trump the life-or-death stakes they find themselves in. Once they see each other, once they feel each other’s magic (which sounds vaguely dirty…), even their attempts to foul each other’s chances, their vague attempts at killing or even tripping each other up fall by the wayside. And honestly…I expected more out of the moves of the game. Most of their magic seemed kitschy and cheesy…kind of…fanciful rather than practical. Aren’t they competing to be the tsar’s Imperial Enchanter? Shouldn’t they be proving they can level whole armies, or protect an entire city from attack? Not dye-ing rivers rainbow colors and making a giant puppet show (the book’s excuse for this is that they are competing near the tsar-to-be’s birthday…so the moves are all themed as such. But I don’t know what ruler-to-be who would prefer water shows to a stronger militia to protect his rule).
I know, I know, I’m being a fuddy-duddy. The book is a good example of fantasy-lite. It’s pretty well-written, with good secondary characters and fun-if-not-very-impressive magic. It’s just that fun-magic books are different than life-at-stake magic books. From the premise, this should be a life-at-stake kind of magic. But more often than not it just seems frivolous.
The magic system itself seems shaky. Usually only one enchanter is born and the entirety of the world’s flow of magic is fed into one body. But in this generation we have two conduits for magic: Nikolai, who specializes in material magic, and Vika, with natural magic. It’s never truly explained why they can’t both exist. I think there’s a line in there about how the power cannot be divided, that it must be present in only one person. Again: why? What are the consequences? And what happens to the magic when one half dies? Does it just kind of…transfer into the other one? So that Nikolai can suddenly manipulate the natural world, or Vika can alter man-made materials?
And the magic just kind of happens. They close their eyes and think of something and it’s there. Sometimes it makes them tired. Sometimes it doesn’t. There’s no collection of ingredients for potions, there’s no real consequence to their doing magic. Nikolai makes himself a suit and Vika sets a forest on fire, nothing to it. It should be harder than this. But it’s not. And it bugs me.
There’s also a should-be-important side plot about a main character in one of our enchanter’s lives that ends on either a cliffhanger or goes nowhere…it’s hard to tell. Paternities and maternities are revealed and they are predictable and unsurprising. Overall, the book just doesn’t take anything seriously enough, and it could have been very, very good if it had.
My Grade: C-