The Crown’s Game is a fascinating urban fantasy using post Napleonic Russia as a landscape. Bridging a gap between War and Peace and the typical YA paranormal, Skye creates a grounded, rich, and melodrama-free story with very smart protagonists and well-conceived magic system. Comparisons will likely be made to Bardugo’s Grisha series since we have a Russian culture with magic. But the Grisha books are straight fantasy; The Crown’s Game is more mature and grounded in historical accuracy. The magic isn’t the raison d’etre; rather, this is a story about three young people (the two magic combatants and the heir to the throne) intelligently and reluctantly addressing the fatal situation in which they’ve suddenly found themselves.
Story: Nikolai, an orphan from the Steppes, has lived in St. Petersburg under the patronage of an aristocrat. He has befriended the Tzar’s son and the two adventure often together. It is an uneasy alliance because both know Nikolai is well below his friend Pasha’s status. But Nikholai has a secret – he has a unique magic skill that enables him to manipulate objects – from making clothes to creating architectural structures. That magic is honed often by his cold aristocratic mentor – a woman who throws deadly challenges at him daily. Meanwhile, hidden on a small island outside the City, Vika grows up with her father learning to use her nature magic. He tests her often and encourages her to develop her skills. When Nikolai learns that he is being trained to take the position of Czar’s magician, he learns that there can only be one – they draw from the same pool and multiple magicians would weaken both. He soon discovers he most not only survive The Crown’s Game but also kill the young woman who has such different magic to his – a woman both he and his friend Pasha encountered recently and someone who has begun to obsess Pasha.
This isn’t a Hunger Games fight to the death with brute force. Skye has created a beautiful, slow burn of a story in which the characters use their intellect to survive the challenges and also send messages to each other. There is no possibility of any other outcome than death for one of them – the interest in the story is how these reluctant combatants will end the Crown’s Game by killing the other. Both Nikolai and Vika are given weeks to complete the trials and think up ways to to prevail – it is that struggle that is most of the book as they live their normal lives and meet up with each other briefly in deadly conflict.
The battles are wonderfully written – full of magic and wonder rather than blood, gore, and action. Most of the book was the beauty of seeing how Vika and Nikolai begin to converse with each other through their magic’s creations – creations that are both wondrous and deadly. At the same time, we do have a bit of a triangle in that Pasha, the Czar’s son, has become obsessed with Vika, the Crown’s Game, and discovering that there is still magic in 1800s Russia. Nikolai has kept many secrets from Pasha – the biggest being that he is a participant in the Crown’s Game and must kill Vika.
I greatly enjoyed The Crown’s Game. This is a single volume story with a definite end that isn’t your typical Happy Ever After. Some readers may feel a bit frustrated or cheated by it; but honestly, it is the best answer for the dilemma in which the characters found themselves. I really appreciated how Skye defined all the characters and made them feel very real and balanced. This is a lovingly crafted story sans histrionics, melodrama, silliness, or logic issues. Very much well worth the read. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.