5 out of 5 stars.
I received an ARC of this work.
This is another novel in the small-but-steadily-growing Czarist Russian young adult fantasy sub-genre. I am not sure there has been another book in this tiny sub-genre that I haven’t enjoyed, so I am glad this one is continuing that trend.
The Russian Czar always has an Enchanter serving him, to carry out his wishes, create marvels, and protect Russia from other magical threats. When the old one dies, a new one is born to hold Russia’s magic, and is appointed to the position when grown. Every so often, though, two Enchanters are born and the Czar forces them to compete in the Crown’s Game. The winner gets to be the new Enchanter, the loser dies.
Vika has been trained since birth by her father to tap into elemental powers, and she is eager to prove herself. She is bored of being isolated in the forest and having no one to practice with but her father. Nikolai is an orphan with a demanding patroness and the friendship of the next Czar. He is less than enthused to have to compete and is uncertain about his own skills.
The most enjoyable part of this book is the contest between the Enchanters, watching what they each came up with to impress the Czar and his son. If anyone has read “The Night Circus”, it reads a bit like that, with two magic users pushing both their technical skills and their imaginations to create feats of wonder. It is very fanciful and reads like a very colourful and weird dream. They come up with some neat stuff, while quietly sniping at each other in the background.
The story gets its intensity from the interactions between Vika, Nikolai and Pasha (the Czar in waiting). Vika and Nikolai are supposed to be in life and death competition with each other, but they slowly come to admire each other and even look for friendship in the one other person who has the type of power they thought they alone possessed. They go from wary disdain to tentative trust to friendship, and that is a good path to watch unfold.
This book does not have the same heavy Russian flavour that “The Gathering Storm” and “Shadow and Bone” had, but it is still immersive world building. The characters are realistic and personable and the story moves quickly enough to keep you hooked. Definitely a must-read fantasy for 2016.