A star-crossed pair is magically compelled to duel to the death in this sumptuous, Tolstoy-flavored fantasy debut.
In 1825 the tsar of an alternate Russia desperately needs an Imperial Enchanter, and there are two possible candidates: bold (almost feral) Vika Andreyevna, of aristocratic lineage but raised in humble isolation; and fiercely ambitious Nikolai Karimov, born a poor Kazakh orphan but groomed for elegant St. Petersburg society. Despite their instant attraction, they are doomed to obey ancient tradition and compete in the Crown’s Game. The winner will attain “unimaginable power”—but for the loser, instant death. Fiery Vika, who specializes in nature enchantments, is well-balanced by the calculating Nikolai, skilled in mechanics and artifice; their escalating magical displays cleverly showcase their opposing talents and personalities and how they complement rather than clash. Multiple points of view highlight the vivid secondary characters who play pivotal roles—as does a gorgeous, fairy-tale version of St. Petersburg, almost a character in itself. The plot is not so much dramatic as operatic, with masked balls, thwarted passions, fantastical feats, tortured love quadrangles, heartbreaking sacrifices, and vengeful secrets from beyond the grave. And, like many an opera, the climax is beautifully tragic, leading to a poignant, bittersweet epilogue with just enough bread crumbs to leave open the possibility of a sequel.
Wildly romantic, wholly immersive, and gloriously over-the-top. (Fantasy. 12 & up)