I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Crown's Game by Evelyn Skye
Series: The Crown's Game #1
Published by Balzer + Bray on 17th May 2016
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy, Historical
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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 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 an old one, older than the tsardom itself. It began long ago, in the age of Rurik, Prince of Novgorod, when Russia was still a cluster of tribes, wild and lawless and young. As the country matured over the centuries, so, too, did the game. But always, always it retained its untamed fierceness.”
If nothing else, The Crown’s Game works nicely as an exercise in preference.
More specifically, in understanding where you’re willing to draw the line between what makes for story ‘influenced’ by another, and what makes for a ‘blatant copycat’ of something done before, and done better.
See, I don’t like this book, and that’s mostly because I’ve read Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. It’s one of my favorites, in fact. So to read a novel that ultimately comes across as an inferior copy/paste job of that work makes me not only uninterested, but angry.
Now, I understand that there are only so many tropes and ideas in fiction, and that, at this point in the human experience, we’ve probably found and slapped a label on most of them. It’s very rare (impossible?) to come across media that isn’t derivative of something that has come before. The key, then, in creating a good story these days comes not in discovering something completely new and revolutionary, but in finding new ways to combine and play with preexisting ideas to make them feel fresh again.
A solid story in our contemporary culture is a patchwork collection of recognizable concepts that’s been given a shiny new coat of paint. At its core, once the nice exterior and little details have been chipped away, it’s something that we’ve seen a dozen times over. But it’s those details that make it fun: they’ve been thrown together and dressed up in a way that we haven’t seen before, at least in that exact manner. ‘Originality’ has taken on a new meaning, I suppose, and that’s okay, because that’s the nature of pop culture. It evolves, and we roll with it.
The Crown’s Game, to me, doesn’t do this. It isn’t just that its general plot — two magicians/wizards/sorcerers compete in creating magic until one ‘wins’ — is reminiscent of The Night Circus, but that it borrows wholesale from it. It’s practically the same story, but simplified (‘gutted’ is the term that comes to mind), given a few loose ends to ensure a sequel hook, and tucked into the Russian Empire for a change of scenery.
To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at some theoretical concepts that you could use in a book about a contest between magicians:
- The players have been raised separately by mentors of lesser ability in preparation. They have history together despite their being on opposing sides.
- The players feel a powerful connection between them, and fall for one another during the course of the contest. This makes the inevitable outcome very dramatic, because the loser will die.
- A secondary female character is in love with the male lead. Her affections are mostly unrequited, because he is drawn to the other enchanter. She gets involved with his game of magic. She does some fortune-telling and provides ominous clues about impending death.
- The magic used in the game is performed in turns. It is used to create spectacles for ‘regular’ folks to appreciate and admire, without them realizing what it truly is. Eventually, one of the players conjures something open-ended, so that the other can add to it in collaboration.
- A subplot involves a mystical woman who seeks revenge against the arbiters of the game. Her actions cause things to go awry near its conclusion.
- The male lead is quiet and reserved, and tends to keep to the sidelines. He comes from poverty and namelessness, and his mentor is a strict and uncompromising individual who adopts him. He strikes up a friendship with a man who will be involved in the game’s execution and will ultimately cause the death of another character. This individual will not know about the game at first, but will become enamored with it once it begins to impact his life.
- The female lead is more lively and direct, but also keeps to herself. She strikes up a tentative friendship with the secondary female character who is in love with her opponent. She asks to have her fortune told by this person, and the results foresee death for someone, though it isn’t entirely clear who. Her mentor is her father, and magic leads to some misfortune for him.
- During an extravagant costume party, the two leads dance. It is magical (literally and figuratively), and they feel a spark towards one another that they cannot deny. This leads to their blossoming romance.
Now, does the list refer to this book, or to The Night Circus?
Surprise! It’s applicable to both.
And it’s not just that The Crown’s Game is so similar to a previous novel that it’s incredibly easy to predict if you’ve read the latter (though it’s certainly a problem). It’s that it feels shallow by comparison, and that whatever new ideas it does come up with don’t add enough to make it seem like less of a halfhearted duplicate.
The story is simpler, there are fewer characters, and very little of the book actually ‘feels’ magical. The setting, the performances of actual sorcery: it’s all just sort of…there. The writing is more practical than poetic, which partially contributes to the issue, but the real fault comes from the presentation of the story itself, in the fact that it’s too ‘easy.’
Like The Night Circus, there are several chapters that focus on characters aside from the central pair, whose arcs eventually tie into the game’s outcome and the fates of the two duelists. Unlike that book, though, there’s nothing particularly interesting about their storylines, and that’s because there’s no suspense to them. Everything is essentially spelled out for both the other characters and the reader almost immediately after a new, potentially interesting hurdle is introduced. Rather than playing with the drama that comes from not knowing everything at all times (either you as the audience being oblivious to what the cast does, or vice versa), the motivations and meanings behind every new mystery are usually explained, and/or the mystery itself solved, within a few chapters. There’s no buildup or misdirection. It all comes and goes with nary a hitch. The characters themselves aren’t ‘bad,’ per se, but they don’t do much to stand out from their comparisons, and aren’t interesting enough to stand out from their story. They’re just there to move it along.
And as much as I hate certain tropes that are used to needlessly pad out or complicate things (“If you had just talked to one another…”), they at least make things exciting, and give the writer a chance to play around with alternating viewpoints and the reader’s expectations and frustrations. Here, it seems like there’s almost no point in having multiple characters’ perspectives or additional subplots, because everyone (you included) is promptly clued into everything anyway.
Part of me appreciates the tidiness, because I’m all about order and methodical storytelling. In practice, however, it’s boring when taken to this kind of extreme. This extends to smaller bits within the writing itself as well, which loves to explicitly tell you how this scene parallels an earlier one, or how this situation is ironic because of that context. It’s all of the frustration of info-dumping, but spread out in individual lines and bits of dialogue, instead of clumped together in the middle of a chapter. The author apparently doesn’t trust us to catch neither tone nor symbolism, so she’s sure to point it out.
When it isn’t being blatantly revealing, the writing is awkwardly pseudo-poetic, or both, which just adds to the concerns raised by the plotting and doesn’t give you any compensation for it in the form of lovely imagery or clever word usage. Take a look:
“He winked at Vika — the kind of wink that only worked in dreams…”
“Vika reached down to pick up the hat. It felt real in her hands, like silk and ribbon and rounded edges, and yet it felt like nothing was there at all. It weighed as much as reality, and as little as fantasy.”
“But next to Vika, Ludmila said, ‘They’re like puppets manipulated by masters they cannot see.’
Too true. Vika knew the ballerina represented her, and the Jack, the other enchanter. Like the puppets, she and her opponent never had a choice: their destiny was a pas de deux, a splendor and a torment fated for the two of them.”
“And touching Nikolai, even through her gloves and his sleeve, was like being pummeled by a stampede of wild horses. No, wild unicorns. Beautiful, wild unicorns.”
“She looked all around her, at the people who could not see her and the city that was too fake to be real but too real to be feigned.”
Hm. Lyrical writing can turn melodramatic very easily, and it does here more often than not.
That line about the unicorns also brings up a popular YA trope that I’ve grown to hate, and that predictably rears its irritatingly perfect head here. It’s the ‘Mystical, Instantaneous Connection That Destines Us Two Gorgeous People to Be Soulmates’ take on romance that is apparently the only type of love that exists in YA.
Look, I get the appeal of it. Really, I do. It’s escapism, fantasy, wish fulfillment, and all of that. But it’s exhausting and unpleasant to read book after book in which the (white, heterosexual) leads are always somehow impossibly beautiful and perfect, and feel tingly when they touch for the first time because they are now the center of one another’s universe. Or something.
We live in a culture that is desperately lacking in complex, varied, and just plain good representation for marginalized kids, yet overflowing in poor body image and low self-esteem thanks to narrow-minded rules for beauty. So being pummeled time and again with protagonists who have perfect jawlines and rippling muscles and slender waists and glowing eyes and perfect skin is debilitating for the many readers who don’t — and can’t — look that way. Books don’t have to adhere to the same, rigid guidelines for appearance that film is subjected to, yet they do anyway. And I’m so tired of it.
I want something grounded. I’m all for romance, but I want it to be something that can be related to once the fantasy context is filtered out. I want characters who aren’t described as looking like cover models but are still considered beautiful by themselves and others. I want characters who fall in love slowly, messily, and awkwardly. Who have to work at what they have together because there isn’t some otherworldly destiny or bond that pits them together beyond what the circumstances of their plot may dictate.
Is that too much to ask for? I hope not.
So… Should I Read It?
Have you read The Night Circus?
Yes? Then you probably shouldn’t, regardless of whether you liked it or not. If you did, the similarities are like to distract you, and if you didn’t, I’m not sure if there’s enough that’s different here to pique your interest this time around.
No? Then I suppose you might want to, as the concept on its own is definitely fun, and it’s, well, ‘traditional’ for a YA fantasy series. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on you.
I may have not liked the book, but that doesn’t mean I can’t throw in a few tracks. I don’t know anything about Russian music or its culture in general, so forgive the shallow attempts at referring to it via an animated movie that is decidedly not historically accurate.