Simon and Schuster, 2016
The Ottomans and the Kazakhs threaten 19th-century Russia, and the tsar desperately needs the magical powers of an imperial enchanter. Unfortunately, the last enchanter died 20 years ago in the Battle of Austerlitz, and his magic went back into the Wellspring, to be renewed in the fullness of time by a young person who tapped into it. This time, however, two young potential enchanters have arisen: Vika Andreyeva, raised and trained by her mentor Count Sergei on the pastoral island of Ovchinin, and Nikolai Karimov, adopted from the steppes and trained in St. Petersburg by Sergei’s formidable sister, Countess Galina Zakrevskaya. The situation deeply endangers Russia, because the magic of two enchanters threatens to drain the Wellspring. To prevent that paralyzing event, past tsars devised the crown’s game: the two enchanters must enter a magic competition to show which one is more powerful. The winner becomes the tsar’s most trusted confidant; the loser dies.
Skye’s omniscient narrator presents the competition from various points of view: Vika is fierce, and her magic controls nature; Nikolai is a citified loner with technological skills; Nikolai’s best friend, Pasha, is the tsarevitch, who sneaks out of the palace to meet real people.
As the competition progresses, each potential enchanter’s act of magic makes St. Petersburg and its environs (lovingly and meticulously described) more beautiful. The game is further complicated by the attraction Nikolai and Vika instantly feel for each other, and then from Pasha’s attraction to Vika. Such a triangle can end in nothing but tragedy, and it does – although there is a second volume coming that will probably take some of the sting out of readers’ sorrow.
This debut novel takes a little while to find its own voice, but gradually, as Skye’s love of St. Petersburg and her imaginative talents outgrow the fantasy she has read, it rises to quasi-operatic heights. The characters, especially Vika, escape the stereotypes that originally threaten them and develop depth. The progress takes the book’s first third, and that, plus the absence of video-game magical destruction, will disappoint readers who expect blood and thunder. More philosophical readers, however, will be swept away by magical skills that are turned to creation rather than destruction, and by the idea of a Wellspring that limits magic and endangers love. While set in an alternate Russia, the book also captures the ironic tension between the country’s exquisite beauty and the political tragedy of its government.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.