Book Talk | Ruthless Magic Pt.1: Much Ado about Theme

Part 2 | Part 3

Although I’ve been a self-proclaimed book reviewer for nearly a decade now, if there was ever a story element that I shied away from as much as possible, it’s themes. And with good reason. Themes are intangible and vague, requiring in-depth analysis to figure out, especially on a long-form story like a novel. For me, if a book is good, it’s good; I’ll leave the theme analysis to people more capable than me. The more concrete story elements like character and plot are more of my jam.

Of course, now that I know better, I realize you can’t actually treat individual story elements without touching upon the theme at all. In fact, story elements don’t exist separately from one another. They’re all interconnected, they’re all related and defined by all the others. The theme just so happens to be the one element that’s more pervasive and subtle than the rest. It weaves the whole story together, makes the sequence of scenes, dialogue, and conflict have some higher meaning.

I didn’t quite understand just how important the theme was until I read a Megan Crewe’s Ruthless Magic, a book that failed at communicating its theme at the most basic level despite having all the necessary tools at its disposal.

Ruthless Magic by Megan Crewe

Each year, the North American Confederation of Mages assesses every sixteen-year-old novice. Some will be chosen. The rest must undergo a procedure to destroy their magical ability unless they prove themselves in the mysterious and brutal Mages’ Exam. 

Disadvantaged by her parents’ low standing, Rocío Lopez has dedicated herself to expanding her considerable talent to earn a place in the Confederation. Their rejection leaves her reeling—and determined to fight to keep her magic. 
Long ashamed of his mediocre abilities, Finn Lockwood knows the Confederation accepted him only because of his prominent family. Declaring for the Exam instead means a chance to confirm his true worth. 
Thrown into the testing with little preparation, Rocío and Finn find themselves becoming unlikely allies—and possibly more. But the Exam holds secrets more horrifying than either could have imagined. What are the examiners really testing them for? And as the trials become increasingly vicious, how much are they willing to sacrifice to win?  [blurb taken from GoodReads]

Before anything else, a brief disclaimer. Ruthless Magic isn’t a bad book, not by a long shot. In fact, majority of the people who read the book loved it. Most of its ratings on Goodreads are either five or four stars. I even gave this book two stars because, in all honesty, it wasn’t bad. However, in my personal opinion, it also wasn’t good. If it were any other book, I’d have just forgotten all about it and moved on with my life. In Ruthless Magic’s case, there was something about it that just felt off. It had the makings of a good story and yet… it wasn’t one. And since I have taken it upon myself to study what makes good stories tick, I figured that it could be a great learning opportunity to dissect a bad story like Ruthless Magic to figure out where it went wrong.

And boy, is there a lot to dissect. I don’t think I fully realized how extensive the book’s flaws were. After a couple of weeks of on-again-off-again research, I determined that the story focused too much on every other element but theme. Most of the effort to make the story pop seemed to have been spent on the magic system and, as interesting as it was, it couldn’t really hold the story together. By undermining the theme, by failing to incorporate it to the rest of the story, the whole thing just fell apart.

We’ve got a lot of ground to cover with this book – so much that I literally cannot contain all of my thoughts and ideas in one blog post. If I did, this thing would be nearly 10 thousand words long. Dividing this Book Talk in parts will make it easier for everyone, myself included. In this first part of three (I think), we’ll tackle as a whole then move on to the more specific elements later.

One last thing, I gave each section a sort of musical title since in the world of Ruthless Magic, music is the medium to “harken” magic. What can I say? I wanted to be cute.

I. Theme Overture

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In John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story, he refers to the theme as the author’s “moral argument.” Basically, a story is built on the author’s moral vision on how to live a better life through subtle messages, imagery, and scenes throughout the text. Authors don’t typically state their story’s theme in one clear line. Most great stories’ themes aren’t explicitly stated at all but are expressed through the story elements.

Truby goes on to say that “expressing (the moral argument) to an audience is one of the main purposes of telling the story.” Whether the reader (or perhaps even the author) is aware of it or not, from the very inception of the story’s premise, the theme already sets the story in motion.

Ruthless Magic has a theme, though very poorly expressed. In fact, rather than seamlessly holding the story together, Ruthless Magic‘s theme seemed almost superimposed on to the text. You see hints of varying clarity sprinkled in random moments and in no coherent order so readers are essentially led to no other logical conclusion but to that theme.

While the book wasn’t heavy-handed or preachy, it still failed phenomenally at relating the basic story elements with its theme. I’ll talk about what I believe Ruthless Magic was trying to say in a moment but, for now, let’s just say that it’s a real shame that it handled it so messily because the theme could have really improved the reading experience. Ruthless Magic could have been more emotionally impactful if it presented its moral argument better.

Put in another way, if this were a debate, Ruthless Magic would be the debater who accidentally dropped their index cards seconds before their turn at the podium, and in their panic, fail to put their cards in order, even misplacing a few important notes in the process, so when they walk up stage they have no choice but to wing it. As an audience, you get what they’re trying to say after piecing together their disorganized ideas but, overall, there’s just no weight to their speech. Because there was no organic structure to their argument, no cross examination of the ideas they presented, no development of their thesis statement to something more profound, you aren’t persuaded or enlightened or affected in any way. All you can really do is sit there, shrug and say, ‘Ok, I guess…?

In order to explain this further, we’ll have to start by disassembling the entire story. The theme is just so ubiquitous, so foundational, so goddamn intrinsic to all the other story elements that we’re going to have to unpack the story block by block to see how flimsily its moral argument was asserted.

II. Story Structure, a Requiem

On the outset, Ruthless Magic is a standard enough YA fantasy novel, though it did have two main characters’ POV which was an… interesting choice… and ultimately an unnecessary one but more on that on the next post. While the whole Hunger Games-meets-“this other popular YA book” (in this case, Harry Potter) is far from original, the concept is still appealing enough to catch readers’ attentions. I mean, who wouldn’t be intrigued by the idea of fusing the brutality (and, dare I say, ruthlessness) of the Hunger Games with the charm and whimsy (and magic… see what I did there?) of Harry Potter?

Unfortunately, Ruthless Magic failed to capture the essence of what made either titles great stories.

The book opens with the first main character, Finn, the male lead, and exposits basically everything you need to know about him in the first chapter. Ditto with Rocio, the female lead, in the second chapter. Is the opening rushed and the exposition too jarring? A little bit but not enough to really discourage you from reading on. Anyway, from the get-go we are given the expressed goals of both leads: Finn (old magic novice who got Chosen purely because of his family name since he’s obviously a weak mage) wants to deserve his magic; Rocio (new magic who got rejected despite her prodigious talent) wants to prove to the Confederation that she should keep her magic. If it seems like the perfect set-up for an in-depth exploration on privilege, institutional discrimination, nepotism, and other relevant social issues… spoiler alert: the book is unfortunately not nuanced enough for that.

So our two heroes declare for the Exam, the tragically uncreative name for this book’s version of the Hunger Games. The Exam is also the book’s designing principle, the narrative device used to tell the overall story. I’m gonna pick apart the Exam and its flaws as the designing principle later so let’s put a pin on that for now. Finn and Rocio go to the Confederation’s exclusive island to take the Exam and find out halfway through the book that the super mysterious, super ominous, super threatening Exam they’ve heard nothing but terrible stories about… is actually pretty bad. Like kids get hurt and stuff… maybe even die but it’s not really clear. And wouldn’t you know it, the Exam is actually just a front for the pseudo-dystopian magical government’s recruitment of magical soldiers for the War on Terror. Those who pass it don’t get to go to magical college; they get to fight terrorists.

Yes. Seriously. That’s why we’ve got a pin on the Exam.

If it sounds like I’m ragging on the Exam… it’s because I am. The whole thing is written in a strange fusion of simplistic yet laughably self-serious. Hunger Games but with undefined stakes. Kids are put in constant danger and are forced to kill (or not since the book backtracks on that at the end) but… yeah? Obviously? Everyone knew this? It’s like the book wanted the characters to be intimidated by the Exam but also wanted them to be shocked that the Exam is exactly as life-threatening and twisted as rumours made it out to be. So when the big reveal was dropped I was baffled at how the book expected me to care.

Moving on. Rocio and Finn are devastated when they learn the truth about the Exam, especially Rocio who has an intense case of Savior Complex. Clearly, neither of our heroes want to hurt people with magic. However, since the Exam is taken voluntarily, they can choose to quit any time. And after agonizing over the decision for less than a quarter of the chapter (in the story, they have the entire night to think about it so naturally the book skips to the next day), the two decide to stay and fight to be Champion.

The characters (minus one implied dissenter) make it to the end stage where the examiners leave the kids to probably fight to the death. I mean, the examiners give zero instruction, just the implication that they’ll take only a handful of Champions, so clearly it’s battle royale or bust. Rocio and Finn, again, don’t want to fight but the others don’t give a fig. The two resolve the whole thing by breaking the boundary surrounding the island and exposing the Exam to the nearby city. Rocio makes Champion while Finn (who masterminded the expose plot) gets his magic burned out of him but he’s cool with it. End story.

Oh, and throughout the book, Rocio and Finn fall in love within the span of three days. All I can say about it is that their romance is on a slightly higher level than insta-love. Like the two looked at each other for two seconds before deciding that they’re in love.

A couple of things I want to mention here. Despite the Exam’s Hunger Games’ vibe, it’s not in any way competitive so already there’s little to no tension or drama between the characters. The only people who employed cutthroat tactics and direct physical attacks were the plainly evil antagonists, Callum and his mini-group (also put a pin on Callum because there’s a lot to unpack with his character). The stages in the Exam are also weirdly paced. The Exam doesn’t get increasingly more difficult as the characters move on. There’s no build-up or anything. Certain stages last longer than others for no reason at all. Probably the best/worst example of the fact the the main characters’ final opponent, the “final boss” they had to fight, was Callum a.k.a. the textbook definition of a playground bully a.k.a. the guy who should have been the very first opponent.

So now that we’ve got a gist of the overall story of Ruthless Magic, we can finally tackle about what this Book Talk is really all about. Its theme.

II.A. Harmony (and Lack Thereof)

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That’s right. A book about young mages duped into joining the magical government’s counterterrorism secret task force is actually about the importance of harmony. Balance. Peace. It’s pretty cheesy but, hey, moral arguments typically are.

Although it took me until the very end of my second reading of this book to figure out its theme, in hindsight, I suppose there were enough instances to convey the idea of harmony. Finn and Rocio’s whole thing is that they’re better mages together than separately – Finn’s knowledge partnered with Rocio’s skill does lead them to do great things. Their group was able to overcome all the tests because they all worked together. The other groups were able to survive the final stage by uniting against a common enemy. Even the magic – which Rocio has such a deep connection with that she actually senses its displeasure throughout the Exam – was noticeably weaker when the young mages use it for destruction rather than creation. That’s the book’s moral argument.

The problem is that it presents its arguments in such a clumsy and blundering way that you have to squint to really see the point it’s trying to make. There’s never any emphasis on teamwork where Rocio and Finn’s group is concerned. Sure there was that one guy who went off on his own for a bit but he had about as much impact on the narrative as the two other extraneous characters in the group. The characters never even have a minor revelation that maybe, just maybe, they’re more powerful as a whole rather than by themselves; it’s just a given that they are. The story never leads up to that conclusion through characters clashing with one another or emotionally driven scenes; the conclusion was simply drawn way before there was any evidence to support the fact. Ruthless Magic‘s argument was just a passive show of people working in harmony and getting results.

The juiciest part in all of this is that Ruthless Magic‘s theme is also what it lacks the most. There is no harmony in the story elements. They all just bumble around, awkwardly passing one another, sidestepping the theme in almost every chance they get.

It’s especially infuriating because there were so many ways to fix the disconnect between the theme and the other story elements. The most obvious story element that needs fixing, I believe, is the Exam…

III. Designing Principle in Fugue

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As previously mentioned, the Exam in Ruthless Magic is the novel’s designing principle, the framework used to tell Rocio and Finn’s story. 95% of the novel is set during the Exam so you’d think it would be the most heavily imbued with the central theme of harmony. Except… no.

Simply put, the Exam makes no sense. Rather than reaffirming the theme in any way, shape, or form in a subtle but emotionally powerful way, the Exam was more of a series of arbitrary tests with barely any semblance of a logical sequence. The stakes were unclear and inconsistent, the challenges an exercise in evading actual pathos and introspection, and the consequences negligible to nonexistent. It’s that bad.

To show you how bad the Exam was structured as the designing principle, let me enumerate the ways it made no sense. Yes, it’s time to unpin the Exam.

III.A. The Exam Fails as the Narrative Strategy

It’s worth repeating just how uncompetitive the Exam was made to be, at least for the central characters. There was almost no sense of rivalry among the main cast, which was a detriment both to the story and to the theme. The characters that do treat the Exam as a competition are so transparently meant to be bad and wrong that they’re not worth considering as counterarguments.

This choice to frame the Exam with almost no tension among the examinees is so mind-boggling because it could have been (and should have been) the best place to start planting the seeds of the story’s moral argument.

Here’s a brief rundown of the stages in the Exam. First was the individual assessment stage: a written exam, an evaluation of basic magical skills, then practical application of magic. That stage makes sense. But then they are divided in groups for the next stage which I assume were meant to test the examinees’ capability to work as a team? I mean the first task (they have to track down and disable the magical weapons they were told to make in the previous stage) automatically had the group work as a whole because there was no way anyone would have succeeded on their own. The task after that was a literal retrieval mission so, again, teamwork. But then the next stage comes and it’s… more individual challenges? Except not really? And the final stage was a whole ass mess.

Now, knowing that the story’s theme is the value of harmony, wouldn’t it be more logical to have structured the Exam with increasing levels of difficulty to lead up to the idea that the kids should work together as a team? And wouldn’t it have made the story more compelling if the characters initially had a mercenary approach to the Exam? They are fighting to keep their magic, after all. It would have made more narrative sense to make each character wary of working together, because they don’t want to be dragged down by others. Mark, the one character in Rocio’s group that chose to take the challenge by himself, could have been something interesting but he was literally useless to the plot. Basically, he left the group, came back, then died. That’s it.

Granted, the Exam is set in unfamiliar, hostile territory so it makes sense for the characters, strangers as they are, to huddle up together to survive the unseen threats. But my issue here is that the Exam could have easily been designed to ensure that there’s some tension between the examinees, if only to encourage everyone to give it their all. Maybe the examiners could have made it abundantly clear that each examinee is assessed for their individual successes, not as a group. Working together isn’t discouraged; just not incentivized. That would at least push each character to one-up the others, maybe even inspire some resentment on the more powerful and privileged examinees (Rocio and Finn, respectively). You know… conflict?

What we got instead was a sad, milquetoast excuse for a Hunger Games knock-off where the characters had no reason not to work together, therefore never need to have the realization that they’re more powerful as a whole than as individuals… therefore the goddamn theme itself couldn’t organically manifest in the designing principle where it should have had the most to do with.

And that’s not all.

III.B. The Exam Fails as a Tool for the Main Opposition

The main source of conflict in this book is the Confederation refusing to let our heroes (well, Rocio, mostly) keep their magic. The Exam, in this case, is the main antagonist the heroes must triumph over. However. The logistics of the Exam, from a storytelling perspective as well as an in-universe concept, don’t add up.

First, the ultimate goal of the Exam is to find the next wave of secret magic soldiers yet… the Exam isn’t mandatory? That’s like YA dystopia 101 – a state-mandated test! And I know that this book is contemporary fantasy but it tries so hard to be dystopia what with the whole oppressive and authoritarian government that you’d think it would at least have adopted the one dystopian trope that matters. But in Ruthless Magic, the Exam that decides whether the kids get to keep their magic is optional which, again, a huge detriment to the story with no apparent benefit. I can only assume that this was a self-indulgent move for Finn to appear honorable and woke because if Finn’s character contributes anything, it’s a lot of lip service about the insidiousness of privilege.

By making the Exam the characters’ own choice, it makes it quite difficult to sympathize with them when things get really tough. I can understand fighting to keep one’s magic – especially since the main characters were so passionate about their craft – but when they find out that they won’t actually be students after they pass the Exam and will instead be soldiers… the fact that they still want to finish the Exam is preposterous. And they hardly agonize over it! Not a single character seriously considered calling it quits. Not even altruistic Rocio. WHY.

And the worst part is that there was an easy fix for this too: make the Exam mandatory. If the Confed felt iffy about putting the old magic kids (with powerful connections) through the wringer, they could have just manufactured different levels of the Exam. They could have come up with some baloney about certain kids showing high aptitude for academic magic so they’ll get accepted into the college without ever knowing about the real Exam while the kids with the most potential (new magic, if possible, since apparently no one gives a damn about them) would require more practical exams to really test their magical ability.

Hell, there could have been a thing where the written exam would appear to highly favor Academy-taught kids. The test questions could have revolved more on magical theory and history, knowledge that new magic kids have almost zero opportunity or resources to study. Y’know, like a lot of standardized tests. That would have been a more poignant illustration of privilege at work (and its real world consequences).

III.C. The Exam Fails as a Worldbuilding Concept

This last one might seem like it’s a flaw that’s only tangentially related to theme but I gotta touch on it since the Exam is such a fundamental part of the novel.

I’ve only briefly mentioned this but in the world of Ruthless Magic, the magical society have taken on the burden of protecting the country against foreign hostile forces. 9/11 being the catalyst of it all. Yes, that. I’d talk about how weird that choice of plot device is but this thing’s too long already so let’s just leave it be.

Anyway, throughout the book, the characters mention the Confed having to fight off against these enemies all the time (though there’s never really any specifics as to who these threats are, what they want, or what their motives are… not sure if the propaganda-like feel is intended or not) so you’re led to believe that the War on Terror is in its all time high. And yet the Confed seems to have a really sloppy recruitment process.

Remember, the Confed leaves old magic kids alone, choosing instead to manipulate desperate new magic kids with no other prospects. There might still be a few weak old magic novices that don’t get Chosen but still the Confed’s pool of possible new recruits is pretty small… and even if there are powerful new magic kids, who’s to say they’ll actually declare for the Exam? Who’s to say they want to risk it all for a sliver of a chance at keeping their magic? Plus, the Confed doesn’t even arrange for transportation for out of state examinees (there’s only one venue for the Exam in the whole of North America) so, really, there’s a ton of external factors the Confed is willing to overlook. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial for their program to seek out as many potentials as possible? Wouldn’t it be better for the Exam if instead of having an air of danger and foreboding, it’d be like an exclusive, once in a lifetime chance at rising to the top? Something these kids hungry for a chance to prove themselves would actually want?

Of course, there is the high probability that the Exam’s true nature would have a double reversal in the next book but I still find it quite strange that the characters – even Rocio who’s supposedly quite smart and quick – wouldn’t suspect an even bigger conspiracy afoot. Not even as sequel bait, strangely enough.

And that’s the end of part 1! If you’ve made it this far, congrats!

There’s still a lot to talk about in the next part so if you’re not already sick and tired of me going on and on about this one book and its theme, stay tuned for part 2 where I’ll discuss (at great length) our two heroes, their character arcs, the supporting characters, and the monumental waste of opportunity for our hero Rocio’s character growth known as Callum.

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