American author Evelyn Skye’s love affair with Russia began when she was still in secondary school. Given a copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Skye was instantly attracted to it’s beautifully described, exotic setting.

So smitten was she by the novel’s “gorgeously brooding” tones that Skye was inspired to study Russian literature and history at Stanford University.

So it’s no surprise then, that her debut novel, The Crown’s Game, takes place in a fantastically magical version of Russia.

“It was through Pushkin and Tolstoy and Turgenev, and yes, more Dostoevsky, that I fell irretrievably in love with the Russian soul. It’s a country with so much depth, history, and personality, it’s as if it were a character all its own,” says Skye in a recent e-mail interview.

“I’m a generally happy and optimistic person, but I think even the most cheerful of us still harbour a secret darkness in our hearts, and classic Russian literature, and the bleak landscapes of Russian winters, spoke to that part of me and never released its hold.”

The New York Times bestseller The Crown’s Game (Balzer + Bray) tells of a nation on the brink of peril. With the Ottoman Empire and the Kazakhs breathing down his neck, the Tsar of Russia needs a powerful enchanter to aid him. He initiates the Crown’s Game, an ancient duel of magical skill between two budding magicians: the winner becomes the imperial enchanter and the tsar’s most trusted enchanter. The loser is sentenced to death.

Author Evelyn Skye’s first novel, The Crown’s Game, is set in a magical version of imperial Russia. — Photo: Joyce Goldschmid Photography

Author Evelyn Skye’s first novel, The Crown’s Game, is set in a magical version of imperial Russia. Photo: Joyce Goldschmid Photography

One of the Game’s contestants is Vika Andreyeva, a poor peasant girl who’s lived on the remote Ovchinin Island with her father her whole life. She has powers over the elements, while the other contestant, Nikolai Karimov, has more mechanical magic. A smart and spirited young orphan cast unexpectedly into Russian high society, Nikolai is best friends with Pasha, the current heir to the Russian throne.

Thrown together in this deadly game, Vika and Nikolai soon discover they have feelings for each other. Complicating matters for Nikolai, however, is the return of an ancient secret from his past, and the discovery that Pasha also has feelings for the girl he loves…

The Crown’s Game offers a thrilling, fast-paced story that reads like a magical mix between Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and Erin Morgenstein’s The Night Circus, set in snowy St Petersburg. The novel combines real-life history and fiction to create a captivating narrative, and walks a fine balance between romance and fantasy.

The Crown’s Game is a fantasy, but the underlying tension between Vika and Nikolai is always there, seeping into each of their enchantments as they dance toward death, making it so their doomed love story is as much a part of the Game as the magic is,” Skye says in describing her book.

“Also, for me, this book is not just about romantic love; it’s about all kinds of love. It’s about love between family, between friends, and also between potential lovers.”

Born in the United States to Taiwanese immigrant parents, Skye was an avid reader and writer as a child: in primary school, she would write poetry in her notebooks, some of which would eventually be published in a county anthology.

“I still remember the joy of getting my first library card and signing my name on it with unsteady handwriting. My mum would take my younger brother and me to the library every week, and we could wander the aisles and pick as many books as we liked.

“I’ve always loved fantasy novels; I read and re-read The Chronicles Of Narnia, A Wrinkle In Time, and the Redwall series over and over. I also loved Mrs Frisby And The Rats Of Nimh, The Last Unicorn, and dark, classic fairytales,” says Skye, who now lives in California.

Her favourte stories, however, have always been bittersweet romances with impossible love, which explains how her debut novel turned out the way it did!

str2_ttcrownsgame_terencetoh_1_mustuseOne fascinating aspect of The Crown’s Game is its geographical concept of magic: in Skye’s world, magicians all draw their power from an enchanted place in their own country. In Russia’s case, it’s Bolshebnoie Duplo (Enchanted Hollow).

“It always felt to me that Russia ought to have a beating heart, and that was where the magic would come from. Yet I didn’t want it to be an abstract idea, but rather a physical place that was itself magical, too. So I invented Bolshebnoie Duplo,” Skye says.

“Like much of the magic in the book, Bolshebnoie Duplo is more than what it seems on its surface. In this case, it first appears as a solid mountainside, but the enchanters can pass through the rock into the caves inside. And then they discover that the caves are not carved from granite, but from wood, as if from an ancient tree. I wanted the readers to experience the wonderment of the place at the same time Vika and Nikolai are discovering it, too.”

Would Skye prefer to have the mechanical magic of Nikolai or be a master of the elements like Vika?

“Mechanical, I think, in part because I’m not good at mechanical things in real life, so having the magical ability to create, as Nikolai does, has a great deal of appeal. If I had Vika’s powers, I fear I’d be quite boring and simply make the weather mild and sunny all the time. What a waste of talent!” Skye quips.

The author is now working on the sequel to her bestselling novel: The Crown’s Heir, the second chapter of a duology, is scheduled to come out next year.

“Funny enough, I’m discovering what it’s about as I write it! But I can guarantee there will definitely be more magic, and more St Petersburg, and a few new characters to boot. And yes, some more real-life history as in the first book, with a magical twist,” Skye says.

The author has plans for another book once she is finished, which she says she will announce when it is in “reasonable shape” to see the light of day.

“It’s set in an entirely different world and has quite a different feel from The Crown’s Game, so I’m very excited about it!” Skye says.

While it will be a little sad to move away from Skye’s magical imperial Russia, it will certainly be exciting to see what this talented author comes up with next. Whatever it is, I hope hope it’s as beautifully imagined as The Crown’s Game was.