TITLE: The Crown’s Game (The Crown’s Game #1)
AUTHOR: Evelyn Skye
GENRE: YA, Historical, Fantasy Romance
PUBLISHED: May 17th 2016
Warning: This review contains spoilers
The Crowns Game is a wonderfully executed work of literary art. Set in 18th century Russia and loosely based on the life of the ruling Tsar of that time, The Crowns Game is an engaging YA Historical fantasy romance. Author Skye’s words will enchant you, and pull on your heartstrings. A wondrously imagined tale… of love, magic, and duty, the author takes readers on an enchanting tour of Russia. When I think of Russia I envisioned a cold grey snowbound land but Skye paints a transfixing and vibrant picture of a beautiful country. Her descriptive talents transform Russia into a magical land, showcasing some of Russia’s most beautiful attributes. Laced with artfully imagined scenes of magical splendor you will be enchanted until the last page.
“he wanted his daughter to grow up truly Russian—hiking through birch forests, playing the balalaika, and having an almost religious zeal for buckwheat kasha with mushrooms and fresh butter. It was why they lived on this rural island, rather than in the imperial capital, because Sergei swore that living on Ovchinin Island kept them closer to the heart of their country.”
“Vika spun in a circle in the middle of the promenade, looking at all the benches behind and in front of and around her, each with a different plaque and a different, subtle mist about it. “It’s a dream tour of the wonders of Russia,” she said aloud.”
“They followed the path and entered the boulevard of trees. Everywhere they looked, there were larks and wrens, peeping a melody that sounded almost like an old Russian folk song. If Nikolai listened too closely, the song disintegrated into random notes, but if he softened his focus, the tune came back together again, like the whistling of panpipes and the strumming of a balalaika. “This is a wonderland,” Pasha said.”
“Then, like a watercolor, a new scene filled in. She stood along the Arbat, the main thoroughfare of Moscow, surrounded by opulence. Corinthian columns and intricate mahogany veneers adorned the houses, and women in fashionable gowns strolled arm in arm along the street. The entire city had been rebuilt after its citizens had burned it down to prevent Napoleon from pillaging it, and here Moscow was, shiny and proud and new. It was like being in a dream. Vika could scrape her boots against the dirt, feel the autumn chill upon her skin, even take in the rich smell of mushroom and meat pies wafting in the air. And yet, for all the reality of the scene, the people on the Arbat couldn’t see her. When she said hello, they did not greet her. She strolled away from the Arbat and continued walking until she came to Red Square. She marveled at the white Kremlin walls and paused to admire the red brick and the cupolas of St. Basil’s Cathedral, built to resemble a bonfire rising to the sky. Vika had never been to Moscow, but it was beautiful to behold.”
All her life Vika has been training with her father Baron Sergei Mikhailovich Andreyev, to master her enchanter abilities and become the Tsars enchanter charged with the protecting of Russia during treacherous and tumultuous times. Vika wants this more than anything; this is her life’s dream the most important thing she will ever do.
“Two more years, she thought. Two more years of training, and my magic will be powerful enough to serve the tsar and the empire.”
Nikolai has also been training to be the Tsar’s enchanter orphaned at birth, he’s never known real family and has been trained by his mentor, the cold-hearted Countess Galina Zakrevskaya. Nikolai knows he’s not the only enchanter the countess has been grooming ever since she found him in a rural village in the Russian Kazakh Steppes, and bought him from his village in exchange for 2 horses and 2 sheep. Although provided room and board he’s mostly had to fend for himself the assistance provided by the countess…..his magical training. Nikolai has nothing and his only opportunity to change his lot in life is to win the crowns game and become the Imperial enchanter bringing him and his best friend Pasha even closer. Pasha is the only family he’s ever known, and he will win the crowns game even if he has to kill to do it.
” The clothing he tailored was, of course, necessary for life in the heart of the capital. There was always an invitation to lunch or to play cards or to go to the countryside to hunt. But Nikolai had had to fend for himself in every one of these realms, for his mentor and benefactor, Countess Galina Zakrevskaya, was not about to spend a kopek on him for new boots or a proper rifle for shooting grouse, and certainly not for dance lessons, even though Galina’s friends deemed it fashionable to invite her charity case to their balls.”
“But becoming Imperial Enchanter was about much more than wealth and power to him, unlike what Galina was suggesting. It was also about becoming closer to Pasha, who was like a younger brother to him, and closer to a family of some sort, even if it wasn’t Nikolai’s own. Because, needless to say, Nikolai had no real family. He was, and always had been, alone.”
A Black sheep by anyone’s standards, Pasha is the heir to the Russian empire but he just wants to be an ordinary young man, but is unable to escape his destiny to become Russia’s next Tsar. He’s soft hearted and earnest, and often misunderstood by his family…
“How glad I am to be out of the palace. I think when I inherit the throne, I shall abdicate immediately.” Nikolai perched on the log next to him. “You’d do no such thing, and you know it.” “Ah, but I can dream.” Pasha opened his eyes.
“He turns seventeen tonight,” the tsar scoffed. “The time to grow into his position has long since come and gone.” He turned to Pasha. “You have already been inside the ballroom, haven’t you?”
“There are rules governing with whom you interact and how. Your sister has never had a problem comprehending this. And yet, after seventeen years, it has somehow still not been impressed upon you that the conventions and ceremony of the tsardom matter.
“It is a masquerade for all of them.” The tsar flung his hand in the direction of the ballroom doors. “But it is an imperial state function for you.”
Pasha and Nikolai are best friends, Pasha is ignorant about magic and knows nothing about the crowns game. A whole new world is opened up for him the day he and Nikolai meet Vika on Ovchinin Island rising from flames like a phoenix reborn in a storm of fire and lightning. Both Pasha and Nikolai are immediately intrigued by Vika even though they have no idea who she is, Nikolai however knows what she is and that they will meet again. Pasha’s thought are consumed with thoughts of Vika he searches for and eventually finds her. A love triangle commences.
“Then, as the blaze devoured the remaining length of the trees, lashing its way out to the edge of the circle, a small figure rose from the center, itself engulfed in flames.”
“But Nikolai didn’t need her to tell them who she was. He already knew. He had never seen the girl before, but she had to be the one. The other enchanter in the Game”
“But back to the girl. Pasha began to pace the well-worn groove of the carpet again. “She rose as if the fire were nothing . . . no, as if she were part of the fire.
Fate throws a curve ball. Vika learns’ she not the only enchanter. Vika and Nikolai must compete in an ancient competition called the crowns game. A competition of skill between enchanters, but like one of my favorite TV shows Highlander at the end there can be only one. At the end of the game the losing enchanter dies drained of magic, so that the winning enchanter can receive all Russia’s magic, giving them the strength enough to defend the Russian empire against hers foes.
“The Crown’s Game.” Vika did not even bother to inflect her tone upward this time, for everything now was a question mark. She was beyond using punctuation. “I don’t know what that is.” “I didn’t think there was a need for it. . . . I thought you were the only enchanter. But you’re not, and that means there will be a . . . a test. A competition.”
“When I declare a winner, the Game’s own magic will eliminate the other enchanter. Even if, for some reason, I did not declare a winner after you had each taken five turns, the Game would make the decision for me and extinguish one of you. Russia will have only one Imperial Enchanter to wield the full force of its magic. Understood?”
“Each country’s wellspring emits a finite amount of magic at any given time. It is not without limits. So the number of enchanters must be limited as well.”
And so the crowns game commences and here we have the opportunity to benefit from the beauty of Skye’s writing she makes the magic happen. I didn’t read the scenes, I envisioned them, the artfully written scenes allowed for no less…
“The Jack and ballerina continued to twirl around the sky. The music soared louder and louder. It crescendoed to a furious trill. And then it suddenly broke off into silence. Every muscle in Vika’s body tensed. The Jack and ballerina halted their dance, as if they, too, were startled. The crowd gasped then and pointed at the ballerina’s chest. Although she hadn’t heard Vika’s earlier warning, the ballerina heard the audience now. She looked down at the bodice of her dress. A red silk handkerchief blossomed from where her porcelain heart ought to be. “I knew she couldn’t trust him,” Vika said. The ballerina’s painted mouth formed a devastated O. She glanced at the Jack. He looked not at her, but at a cloud near his feet, his wooden mouth set in a grim straight line. Then the ballerina went limp and plummeted from the sky into her box. The Jack hung his head. The ballerina’s lid lowered and latched with a click”
“Her ordinarily red hair was pale blue tonight, and the black streak had been transformed to silver, like a sliver of mercury. On her face, she wore a mask made of birch wood, rough white with flecks of gray. But it was the gown that had triggered the silence, for it was unlike anything the guests had ever seen. The bodice appeared to be carved from white ice, reflecting the light from the chandeliers on its polished surface, and yet it hugged the curves of her frame and moved with her as if made of water. The skirt was similarly frosty, an endless eddy of snowflakes, like a blizzard erupting from the ice above. Even the air seemed to chill around her. This was not from Nikolai’s Masquerade Box. This was far beyond his tailoring and imagination.”
The commencement of the Crowns games leaves our enchanters conflicted they’re not killers, but one of them will die just the same. Nikaloi’s mentor pretty much orders him to end the game quick, kill Vika and get it over with but he doesn’t think there’s any other option any reason to draw out the games when one of them will die either way. Vika is honorable she doesn’t enter the game planning murder he intends to win solely based on the merit of her magical skill. But often times the best laid plans get washed away.
“Use your magic to kill her and end the Game yourself. Don’t give the tsar the chance to choose anyone but you.” Nikolai’s limbs liquefied. Or at least he felt as if they had. “I have to kill her?” “Did you think the losing enchanter would simply get to live happily ever after?” “I . . . Well, what else was I supposed to believe? You never even hinted at it before.”
Neither of our characters are coldhearted murderers, they make meager attempt’s on each other’s lives only to be relieved by their failure. And their feelings on the game change.
“The girl still lived. The Game continued. But at least he wasn’t a murderer today.”
“He reached the shores of Vasilyevsky Island, on the other side of the Neva, before Vika could use the water to reel him back in. Not that she had the stomach to do it again. Her conscience was still waterlogged from the first attempt to drown him.”
“She stopped walking. “Are you glad for the Game?” she asked.”
“No, I am not at all glad for the Game. Are you?” Vika chewed on her lip as she considered. Finally, she said, “Yes. I’m glad for it. I both love it and hate it. Which, I think, means I both love and hate myself. I am the Game, and the Game is me. This is what my whole life has led up to, and this will determine the rest of it.”
The magic within Vika and Nikolai draw them together like a moths to a flame. I know the author intended for a love triangle conflict but Pasha never stands a chance. As different as Vika and Nikolai are no one can understand them like they do one another. No matter how hard they try they can’t stay away from each other.
“Nikolai’s magic. She wanted to be closer to it. Needed to be closer.”
“He needed to be closer, to feel her magic, to touch . . . her. He trembled at the thought. And he took a step in her direction.”
Pasha is in love with Vika, and so Is Nikolai while Vika shows a little interest in Pasha Her heart warms with Nikolai is around.
“I like you,” he said. “More than like you.” She shook her head slightly, but more to herself than to him. “I don’t want to like you.” “But you do?” Pasha went to run his hand through his hair, but caught himself before he gave his nerves away. “Doesn’t everyone?” “I’m only asking about you.” Vika focused on a deformed crystal of syrup on her thumb. “I’m not in a position to fall in love. With you, or with anyone else.”
“Oh. Heaven help her. Nikolai was more striking than she remembered, and the darkness in his eyes was more dangerous than she recalled. He was a poisonous autumn crocus: deadly beautiful with no antidote. She wanted the flower anyway.”
“Vika didn’t even bid farewell to the imperial family. She certainly did not look back at Nikolai. For it was too cruel of life to bring him to her now, only to remind her that one of them would soon be taken away.”
I must wonder whether Pasha’s infatuation with Vika is in part because of his mother’s insistence that he find a wife.
“The pressure is not only from my father these days. It’s also my mother. She thinks it urgent that they find me a wife.” “I know more than a few who are willing.” Nikolai nudged the prince with his boot. Every girl in the Russian Empire would sell her soul to be the tsesarevich’s Cinderella.”
“You know I want more from a wife than a girl fawning at my feet.”
As Pasha continues his investigation of The Crowns Game, searching for a way to help ensure Vika’s victory it becomes increasingly hard for Nikolai to keep his secrets. Ironic that Nikolai hopes to become closer to Pasha the only family he’s ever known, and when he finally reveals himself to Pasha as the other enchanter and confesses his Love for Vika’s it destroys their relationship.
“Nikolai snapped his fingers, and a needle and thread appeared. They dipped down to Pasha’s shirt and began stitching the tears the broken glass had left. “You’re the other enchanter,” Pasha whispered.”
“I love her, too,” Nikolai said quietly as he sank back into his seat. Pasha, however, did not sit. He towered over Nikolai. “So you lied to me about that as well.”
“Pasha—” “Why do you have to steal Vika?” Nikolai sat up again. “What? I’m not. I said I love her, not that she loves me.” “She’d choose you over me, though. You’ve always had everything, and now you have to take Vika, too.” Pasha stabbed a knife into the center of the loaf of bread.”
“You’ve had years to explain. It’s too late now. From this moment on, I want nothing to do with you or your kind. Keep your magic to yourself.”
Nikolai’s recently resurrected mother kills the Tsar as revenge for abandoning her. An unexpected plot twist leads to the revelation to Nikolai, that he and Pasha are in fact brothers.
“Tell me who you are.” “I will. That I also promise. But first, would you like to know who your father was?”
“Your father was the tsar.” Nikolai stopped in the middle of the street, in front of a small church. “Pardon?” “You heard me right. Your friend the tsesarevich is your half-brother.” “That’s impossible.” “Is it? I think I ought to know. The tsar took me as his mistress during a month long visit to his army on the steppe. I was young and beautiful then, and we spent every night in his tent. Eight months after he left, I bore him a son, whom I named Nikolai.”
Pasha becomes Tsar. Still reeling with feelings of betrayal, anger, and jealousy. Pasha orders the Enchanters to duel to the death using their loved ones as pawn to ensure their cooperation.
“The tsar ceased his attempt to escape from the tent. What was he thinking, anyway? There was no way he could run from her. He sagged onto the edge of his bed. “Nikolai Karimov is your son?” he asked. “Yours, as well.” “Mine . . .” “He does not yet know. But I shall tell him soon.”
“I won’t survive? What have you done?” Aizhana shrugged. “Given you a parting gift, a token of my affection. However, you may not see it as such. You may see it as typhus.”
“The tsar tumbled out of the carriage, and Death swung his scythe. It took the tsar’s life just as he made it into the tsarina’s arms. Death took the tsarina soon afterward.”
“Pasha closed his eyes. He exhaled deeply as he sagged into the throne. Then he nodded. I will be tsar. Because it’s the only thing I have left.”
“I propose a classic duel to determine the winner,” Pasha said. “What do you mean, a classic duel?” Nikolai’s eyes narrowed. “A fight à l’outrance, to the death.” Icicles hung off Pasha’s voice.’
“What if we refuse to duel?” Vika asked”
“My Guard has taken custody of your loved ones,” Pasha said. “Ludmila Fanina and Renata Galygina have been placed under lock and key in an undisclosed location. They will be comfortable during the remainder of the Game, but should you not carry out my wishes, there shall be consequences. Your duel shall take place on the new island, beginning at dawn tomorrow”
“Perhaps it’s not the Pasha of the past, but I have no choice. I am to be tsar. This is me now.”
I enjoyed The Crowns Game; it is a fantastically fun read. The author has a gift for writing enchanting scenes. Scenes that play in your mind like a movie. The author’s adept use of imagery gives a wondrously voyeuristic feel, it’s like you there watching it all unfold. While you read this book you’ll feel alive inside, and feel a sense of loss when it all ends; the book will amaze and enchant you. Even knowing there can be only one enchanter, the ending will still shock and surprise you. (There is a mouth-open, chin-hanging plot twist.) There will be no duel Nikolai knows what he must do, and his mentor knows him too well she’s has already ensured his victory whether he cooperates or not, who would’ve known? The events that unfold won’t be anything you expect.
The Crowns Game might be categorized as YA but is an enjoyable read for all readers, no matter their age.