Russia. 1825. In the peaceful woods of Ovchinin Island, flame-haired Vika lives a quiet life with her father Sergei. Since childhood, he has encouraged her to develop her talent for magic, promising that when she’s grown-up he will take her to St Petersburg to become the Imperial Enchanter. Inborn magic is a rare thing, after all: when the incumbent Enchanter dies, it passes into a new vessel (rather like the Dalai Lama, I suppose) and it is the new Enchanter’s responsibility to put her powers at the service of the Tsar. Little do Sergei and Vika realise that, in the heart of St Petersburg itself, a young man is being groomed for precisely the same purpose. There should be only one Enchanter born in each generation, but something has gone wrong. There are two potential Enchanters in Vika’s generation and that cannot be allowed. The weakest must be eliminated… through the ancient Crown’s Game.
Instituted in the darkest depths of Russian history, the Crown’s Game ensures that the Tsar has access to the sole source of magical power in Russia. The two prospective Enchanters must take part in a contest, each having five moves. With each move they can show off the grandeur of their magical talent, which may or may not include making an attempt on the life of their opponent. If both Enchanters are still alive after each has had their fifth move, the Game itself decides, and the weaker of the two will be destroyed by the Game’s own magic. To lose is a terrible fate from which there’s no escape – but to win places you at the heart of the Russian Empire, able to advise the Tsar and use one’s magic for the public good. Both Vika and Nikolai dream of that: Vika because she uses magic as instinctively as she breathes, and Nikolai because he is best friends with the Tsar’s errant son Pasha, and dreams of being Pasha’s right-hand man one day. Both of them want that future. They just never imagined that they’d have to kill for it.
Imagine The Hunger Games crossed with The Night Circus and you won’t be far off the feel of this young-adult novel. Vika and her (initially) unknown nemesis Nikolai are both innocent pawns being moved by their elders. And both are good at heart: both are horrified at the prospect of having to kill someone else, even indirectly, in order to achieve their own success. And of course there are other complications. When you have two young people sworn to duel to the death, one of them a fiery girl and the other a sensitive young man – and when those two young people have never before met anyone else who can understand them as fully as this rival – what do you expect?
There’s much to enjoy in Skye’s novel, especially since I was in St Petersburg myself just over a month ago and could easily conjure up many of the locations she writes about. Her descriptions of the city capture its beauty and the magic it possesses even without the aid of enchantments, and her characters are attractive and well-meaning. There’s even a magical masquerade ball. However, it is very much a young-adult novel in its narrative choices and I sometimes felt that, as a reader, I was meant to be swept away by the romance (a frustrated romance, as every teenage girl knows, is as good as three successful ones), without paying attention to some of the novel’s weaknesses. While the characters are attractive, they sometimes feel a bit like types – the ‘spirited’ heroine; the sensitive hero; the prince who escapes from the palace and hangs out with his commoner friends… And really, how plausible is that? Surely if the tsarevich of Russia kept absconding without the knowledge of his guard, the guard would be severely punished? And what does that say about the security of the Winter Palace? You can cite ‘secret passages’ as much as you like, but ultimately it isn’t plausible that Pasha can romp around the city without any penalty, except his father being stern now and again.
That, I think, is what made this novel feel so thin me. It is a story about beautiful teenagers whose lives are full of angst and (un?)requited love and magic and yet, once you strip all that away, there isn’t really much left to them. They aren’t the kind of complex, meaty people that I really love to read about, and that is entirely my own preference of course. Nor do we have a real sense of the wider world they live in. There are references to trouble on the border with the Ottomans, but it’s implied that this is something for adults to worry about, or for Pasha’s prematurely middle-aged sister Yuliana. Pasha, Vika and Nikolai are caught up in this magical game which allows them to live in the moment, consumed by themselves, without needing to worry about broader world-building. We never really feel threatened by the Ottomans, because we know that the really important thing in this book is who will win the duel and whether words of love will ever be uttered. I think that’s why it fell a little bit flat for me. That’s only my opinion, of course: I know many passionate adherents of young adult fiction, and hurrah for that, This is a good book of that type and will find plenty of affection, though I wouldn’t hold your breath for the ‘fiery romance’ promised in the cover blurb. Smouldering, perhaps. A sequel has already been published, which will please fans: if you get hooked, then I assure you the ending will have you frantically racing to find out what happens next.
Ultimately, I felt much more engaged by The Night Circus than I did by this, even though I’d been eagerly looking forward to the Russian setting and hoped for a sumptuous historical fantasy. And there are sumptuous moments, certainly, because Skye is a very good descriptive writer and she also paces her novel well. However, for me, these pros were undermined by the fact I could never really see the characters as anything but that: characters in a book. It looks like the grit, blood and cynicism of Jasper Kent’s Danilov books are a better fit for me for now. Please don’t be put off if you enjoy young adult books: I just increasingly find that they leave me wanting something more, which almost certainly doesn’t reflect the quality of the genre so much as the fact that I am now (ouch) of the wrong generation to fully appreciate them.