Book Talk | Ruthless Magic Pt. 2: Characters, Variations on Theme

Part 1 | Part 3

In the first part of this Book Talk, I went on a lengthy diatribe about how Ruthless Magic‘s story and structure did its theme absolutely no service though it had every opportunity to do so. Narrative decisions and worldbuilding concepts did little to assert the book’s moral argument – the story basically just meandered in a contrived direction, clumsily handing the reader hints of what it was trying to say at some point in the journey, until eventually it reached an unsatisfying end.

The first part discussed the book’s inefficiency at themes on a general level. Now it’s time we talk about the book more in depth. As I mentioned in the first instalment, there are different ways of applying the theme in the story, mainly by relating it to the story elements. One particularly effective way to do this is by designing characters as variations on the theme.

Ruthless Magic’s theme is harmony so it shouldn’t have been too difficult to write characters who had varying and contradicting approaches to that idea… right?

Well.

IV. Tone Deaf Characters

The characters in Ruthless Magic aren’t just bland and often indistinguishable from one another – they’re inadequate and unconvincing variations on the theme. From afar, the main characters appear to have clear goals and motivations but, beyond expositing their backstory at the beginning, the story doesn’t really do much with the two heroes to give them more depth. Their values and morals are shown but don’t get explored or, god forbid, challenged. When something does happen that even slightly makes them doubt themselves, it’s resolved a page later. The characters were empty husks parading with all the prerequisite trappings that could have made a compelling character but, upon closer inspection, don’t act according to how they were presented as. They’re not actual people living in the story but are simply a list of characteristics.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. In order to enlighten you on why I firmly believe that Ruthless Magic‘s characters were bad characters that served no purpose to the theme at all, let’s try deconstructing them, starting with the heroes.

IV.A. The Problem with Rocio

Here are the things that we learn about Rocio at the beginning of the book: she loves magic and is willing to risk possibly her life (and consequently hurting her parents) if it means keeping her abilities. Rocio is determined to do whatever it takes to make Champion despite having lost her brother to the Exam years prior. There is a particular focus on Rocio’s first chapter where she tells her mother that magic is worth everything to her so you, as a reader, would assume that that belief would come back later on, probably beaten down to the limit, probably full of pathos.

You would be disappointed.

During the Exam when the examinees are divided into groups, we learn that Rocio has this thing, this weakness, you might say. And that is she is consumed with this almost unhealthy need to always help others around her. She has a case of Savior Complex. I use that term because Rocio was obsessed with saving everyone way before she could even develop an attachment to her little group. Rocio literally feels agonizing guilt whenever she can’t save those around her and feels that it’s her duty to protect everyone. Whenever someone gets hurt, Rocio twists the entire situation around so she could blame herself for it all. Her altruism doesn’t even seem well-meant so much as self-indulgent.

Considering how Rocio is so much more powerful than everyone else, you can see why she’d feel that it’s her responsibility to keep her group from danger. Her lack of self-preservation in favor of saving everyone else could have easily clashed with her expressed goal of doing everything to make Champion. The Exam could have even had a separate test to see if the examinees are willing to leave behind a groupmate in order to complete the mission. It would even line up neatly with the Exam’s ultimate goal of recruiting soldiers plus it would have been the perfect way to get rid of the dead weights in the group (and there were two that definitely didn’t have to be there).

Rocio herself could have been an interesting perversion of the idea of harmony – doing everything for everyone else until you lose your sense of self. It’s an interesting quality to have since it’s both a strength and a weakness. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t see it that way.

Rocio’s Savior Complex is a strength and only a strength. She never suffers consequences for her an inflated sense of heroism, never gets questioned or challenged by anyone because of it, and most certainly never learns anything from it. The book treated Rocio’s inability to leave people be as a noble flaw of hers, her only flaw even. I’d cry out Mary Sue but I feel like Rocio’s too boring for even that.

It’s so weird because the book makes Rocio’s two main values abundantly clear. She loves magic and greatly values human life. Those two values could have been challenged as the Exam progresses and Rocio eventually is forced to choose which one she could live without. The book sets up this internal conflict so clearly yet forgets about it just when it needs it the most.

And if you’ve read the book you might be shaking your head right now and disagreeing with me because wasn’t there like two tests that forced Rocio to “kill” people? (in quotes because the book pussyfoots around the idea). Yes, there were two tests that involved Rocio and the gang having to harm people. But nope, those two instances weren’t challenges so much as things that happen as Rocio watches.

Let me explain.

The first test – the retrieval mission where the gang unknowingly infiltrates an extremist group’s base and subsequently blows it up – Rocio and everyone else believed that they were in a simulation. They didn’t think that their enemies were actual people so they attacked them indiscriminately. Rocio’s morals were hardly tested here. The second one was more upfront about it: they had to kill these conscious human bombs before the time limit. Though they were told that they had no choice but to kill their assigned person, Rocio spends the entire time trying everything in her power to disarm the bomb without hurting the woman. She very nearly succeeds before Prisha, one of the characters in the group, kills the woman for Rocio.

It’s almost comical how the book just tosses aside every golden opportunity to make the characters more compelling. The way I see it, the story would have been so much more powerful whether Rocio’s attempt at saving that random doomed woman succeeded or failed. If she had managed to disarm the bomb and saved the woman, no doubt she’d gain the ire of the examiners whose instructions were very clear. Rocio would then have to deal with repercussions of going against the examiners’s orders. If she failed and the woman blew up (granted if the bomb thing wasn’t just a bluff on the examiner’s part), Rocio would have to face real consequences for a change. I mean, it was stated that if any of the human bombs weren’t killed on time, everyone in the room would die. Rocio took that risk for one woman AND YET NO ONE TALKED ABOUT IT. Prisha gave her smack about it but only for like a page and a half. After that, the matter is dropped entirely.

Here’s all that Rocio had to say about the whole thing:

This girl… this girl blames literally every little thing that happens in the group – that one guy dying, Lacey going rogue, Finn and co getting injured – yet when faced with the very real prospect of almost killing everyone in her team, whom she had at that point grown to care for, for a chance to save one complete stranger, this was all she has to say. No introspection about how fucked up her line of thinking may have been. No guilt about focusing on a stranger’s life rather than on her group’s lives. No realization that you can’t save everyone no matter how hard you try. Instead, Rocio’s internal monologue is more about resisting the Confed/examiners evil ways and staying true to herself, all that malarkey. Very reminiscent of the Hunger Games but so out of place in this book where the stakes are so much lower.

And we haven’t even really talked about Rocio’s character arc or what passes for it.

Rocio, as we all know by now, is initially defined by two things: her love for magic and her need to save everyone. You would assume that once she finds out that the Confed’s plans for the Champions are the exact opposite of her morals, Rocio’s internal conflict would revolve around having to choose between which of her values is more important. Was keeping her magic really worth it if it meant having to hurt people with magic (which she later learns doesn’t like being used for destruction)? Was losing her magic the price she must pay so she would never be forced to hurt people (and Rocio’s raw power can be used to hurt a lot of people)?

Ruthless Magic is really good at defying all logical narrative expectations.

Nope. Rocio doesn’t really ever consider forfeiting her magic. Bizarrely, the text completely ignores this obvious conflict of values. What we do get is even more teenage revolutionary-in-the-making angst about not wanting the evil authority win. I’ve read the book twice and, hand to god, there is never any mention in Rocio’s chapters about even considering leaving the Exam. It’s not even an option for her. It’s as if she has no choice in the matter when the Exam is VOLUNTARY.

Here’s why this bugs me so much. Rocio is a supremely powerful mage. Everyone knows this. She knows this. She is capable of a lot of things, even without proper mage training and study. Doesn’t she realize that she is capable of a lot of destruction when she becomes the Confed’s soldier? Does it not occur to her that the Confed would most likely use her for major attacks? Does it not cross her mind that maybe she would end up hurting more people – and hurting the magic in turn – as a mage? That maybe, for the good of everyone, it would be better for her not to be a mage?

For a character supposedly so sharp and clever, Rocio sure is obtuse about what the Confed could make her do. And for a book written in first person, there’s very little introspection about things that actually mattered.

But the cherry on top of this clumsily put-together arc would have to be Rocio’s ending:

That’s right. The culmination of Rocio’s character is her realizing that she can save the magic from inside the Confed. Ignoring the fact that this plan of hers literally came right out of nowhere, ignoring the sudden change of tune for no apparent reason and with very little time in between, ignoring the logical conclusion that the best way to defy the Confed was to turn down their offer and try to spread the word that the magic doesn’t like destruction… this ending just doesn’t make any sense.

Rocio is a lot of things – a cunning double agent is not one of them. She may have great instincts when it comes to magic but she isn’t a tactician or a chameleon that can blend in even the worst of environments. She isn’t a scheming manipulator with powerful connections. She just has a strong connection with magic. And that isn’t enough to infiltrate an autocratic organization that’s known for shunning new magic, especially ones that present a threat to the status quo. Rocio is the worse person to be a rogue agent, no matter how well-meaning she is.

But you know who would have made the perfect spy though?

IV.B. Finn (the Rocio Double but Somehow Worse)

That’s right. It took me nearly two thousand words to get to this point but here’s my hot take: Rocio and Finn switched character arcs. Seriously, it’s absurd how better suited Rocio is to Finn’s ending and vice versa.

Finn’s whole thing is that he’s very privileged and is just starting to realize this. After his obviously more talented and worthy best friend, Prisha, fails to get Chosen when he does, Finn takes a stand and risks it all to deserve his place in mage society. He wants to prove himself worthy of his magic through his own merit, not simply because of his family’s legacy. That’s the exact opposite of Rocio’s deal, you might have noticed.

However, as the story goes on, it becomes quite clear that the line between the two supposedly contrasting characters is simply an illusion. Their POV chapters, as many readers have noticed, myself included, blur together until it’s impossible to distinguish whose POV we’re in in a given chapter, even when the two leads are in the same scene… ESPECIALLY when the two leads are in the same scene. Their voices are identical. Their thought processes are indistinguishable from each other’s. Rocio and Finn are essentially the same person on microscopically different paths.

And here’s why that’s a problem.

When you have two main characters, it is a given that when we have to switch back and forth between POVs, there has to be a good reason for it. You have another POV character to show the reader a different perspective of the story. Obviously. This alternate viewpoint has to offer a new insight in order to understand the story better. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen.

Finn does not offer anything that we wouldn’t have gotten in Rocio’s POV. He and Rocio have the same reactions to everything that happens in the story. He and Rocio have the same opinions and beliefs that they stand by throughout the course of the Exam. He and Rocio are even in the same space for 95% of the book. We literally gain nothing new when we’re shoved into Finn’s POV.

Had Finn functioned as an effective second main character, he would have had differing and maybe even contradicting views with Rocio. It wouldn’t even have been that difficult since the two were raised in completely different circumstances. Rocio’s nonchalance at executing highly advanced magic with no understanding of how she really does it could have irked Finn at first. Maybe even make him jealous of her talent – after all, Rocio’s not the one who spent her entire life memorizing poetry and studying every text book about magic yet she seems to know it all by heart. That’s recipe for a completely understandable bout of envy that could have been an obstacle for Finn to overcome in order to work together with Rocio and even start a relationship with her.

However, Finn and Rocio hit it off almost immediately. There’s a few hiccups here and there – usually Rocio being insecure about her social standing compared to Finn’s – but never anything significant to matter. Literally every misunderstanding or disagreement our two heroes have is resolved a few paragraphs or a page later. It’s the weirdest, blandest, most uninteresting relationship I’ve read on a YA book.

As a variation on the theme, Finn is… ok. Passable, I guess, especially when juxtaposed with the rest of the characters. Finn is, for lack of a better term, a chill guy. Growing up in an illustrious old magic family, he has an acute sense of what needs to be done. He excels at keeping order and avoiding disruptions. He is harmony at its most docile form – the kind that’s borderline passive. This coincides with one of his character flaws which is ignorance of his privilege and I was actually rather hopeful that it would go somewhere interesting. This aspect of Finn is also why I thought he would be better off with Rocio’s ending but more on that in just a bit.

For the most part, we are repeatedly shown that Finn’s strengths lie in getting through to people. We’re told (by Rocio mostly) that Finn has a silver tongue. Rocio even admits to envying Finn for his ability to put people at ease. Although it might seem like it’s a set up for something plot relevant later on… it doesn’t. Why? Damned if I know. Ruthless Magic seems to thrive on going against conventional storytelling without making up for the missing beats.

There is one moment when it seemed like Finn’s silver tongue would finally be of use. On the last stage, the off brand battle royale, Finn is about to ambush Callum – the final villain that should have been the first – when he suddenly has an empathizing moment. Callum, Finn realizes, is as cruel and merciless as he is in the Exam because he feels like he has no choice. Callum’s even weaker at magic than Finn so the former probably had to rely on his brutality to get by. Finn feels for Callum because he understands exactly where the guy’s coming from. So rather than attacking Callum with his special weapon, Finn instead tries to talk to Callum, get him to see reason. Finn uses his strongest and most effective weapon, his words, to get through Callum’s tough guy facade.

Just kidding. Finn stabs Callum in the leg and bolts.

Finn’s character arc shares more or less identical beats as Rocio though his is more focused on proving himself. He isn’t as obsessed with helping others but mostly because he’s too busy pushing himself to the limit. I won’t dwell too much on Finn’s journey because I’d only be reiterating my points on Rocio but I will explain why his ending sucked and made no sense.

Towards the end of the Exam, Finn comes up with a plan to expose the Exam to the nearby city in order to prompt the examiners to end the madness. Finn knows that by doing so, he’ll get burned out for sure but he realizes that it’s a sacrifice he’s willing to take. In the end, Finn tells Rocio that he’ll have his magic burned out of him but he’s far from done. The two hug and the book ends.

I understand what the book was trying to do, emphasize Finn’s ‘growth’ as a character who at first just wanted to prove that he deserves magic rather than accept it as a given, to someone who knows that there’s more to life than magic. The thing is though… it’s such a weak ending for an already weak character.

Finn’s sacrifice doesn’t really have that much emotional impact because he never had that much magical abilities to begin with. Finn is smart, rich, charming – he’ll be fine without magic. If it was Rocio, on the other hand, it would have been tragic. Rocio’s whole life revolves around magic. It’s all she has. It’s her one connection to her missing and presumed dead brother. We see her shine the brightest when she is using magic. If the examiners were as cruel and heartless as they were set up to be, they could have put the blame on the conspiracy to expose the Exam on Rocio and instead proclaim Finn as the Champion. Rocio is too powerful to control anyway so the Confed could just say that they’re not willing to risk accepting a new magic youngster who has no reason to stay loyal to the Confed.

And you know what else? If Finn was made Champion instead of Rocio, it would have made me actually want to read the sequel. Finn as Champion would have been the perfect insider rebel. He’s got connections, prestige, and magical knowledge – things that would make the Confed trust him. If anyone can navigate the backstabbing and duplicity of magical politics, Finn can. Plus he has a lot at stake if he chooses to work against the Confed. He has family in the Circle – a family that he loves. FOR GOD’S SAKE IT’S ALL THERE! RUTHLESS MAGIC YOU COULD HAVE SAVED THIS BOOK YOU GAVE US ALL THE CLUES.

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IV.C. Callum, oh Callum

BUT if you thought only the main characters were this book’s problems, you clearly haven’t been paying attention. Going through each and every supporting character would do nothing but chip away my already dwindling sanity but there is one person we have to talk about: Callum.

When you look at Callum as an individual, he isn’t very interesting. The way he was designed, Callum really couldn’t be anything other than a schoolyard bully, only much more dangerous since his actions are encouraged (or at least not met with consequences). The only background we get on Callum is through Finn and Prisha who had known him throughout their childhood. Their general conclusion on the guy is that he’s an asshole who loves being an asshole just because he can. Because Callum disappears for halfway through the novel, we don’t get to know him that much either despite him being, for all intents and purposes, the only significant villain in the book. Yes, the examiners are the real Big Bad of Ruthless Magic but you have to understand that they’re an all powerful authority that have no personal stakes in the character’s success or failure. They’re too vague and impersonal to be the real antagonists for our heroes (at least they are in this first book. I’ve no doubt that Rocio and co. will have a stand off with the examiners, nay, the Confed in the second or third book).

Callum then is the only character who fits the mantle of an antagonist in this book. And while I’ve stated that he’s as bland as our heroes, as the antagonist (and as a variation on the theme), Callum’s actually quite solid. Callum is the antithesis of harmony – he is chaos incarnate. He disrupts the peace for his own personal gain, doesn’t see any sense in working together with those around him, and, most importantly, forces our heroes to take action. He may not have much depth but he at least functions as a pretty effective villain.

That is, if the story actually bothered to utilize him properly.

Ruthless Magic introduced the perfect foil for Rocio and Finn – a selfish, ruthless, and shamelessly cruel mage – and manufactured exactly the perfect scenario in which this opponent could morally and emotionally push our heroes to the limit… only to complete disregard him for most of the novel. Rather than put Callum in Rocio and Finn’s group, he’s in a different group entirely. Both groups don’t even meet until the halfway mark. Callum was such a wasted opportunity that it’s almost offensive.

To be clear, Callum is a weak villain. His magical ability is even weaker than Finn’s only unlike our hero, Callum isn’t smart or charming. In the Exam, Callum is the farthest from being a threat to our two heroes. The way he goes about the Exam, however, is a threat to Finn and Rocio. A much deeper threat than simply as competition for Champion. Callum’s values are in complete opposition of our heroes. Whereas Finn and Rocio can’t stand violence, Callum sees it as a necessary means to an end. Had Callum been in Finn and Rocio’s group, I’ve no doubt that the story would have had more tension. Not only would our heroes have to contend with the examiners’ twisted tests, they’d have to deal with Callum who stands for everything they’re against. Callum could have even made a pretty good case for his methods. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and the artificial environment of the Exam is the perfect example of that. If he, a mediocre mage, could ever hope to make it out on top, he has to make sure that he’s the last man standing. It’s the one strategy that he is certain will work for him.

Imagine it: Rocio and Finn’s group trying their hardest to overcome the tests together while Callum continuously sabotages their efforts in order to somehow get ahead of them. At some point, Rocio and Finn will have to consider if they can survive by just being on the defensive or if they should fight fire with fire and get rid of Callum for good. Callum might be a sneaky snake but he is just one person. Not a very smart or powerful person either. The group could simply trap him in his own game, forcing him to forfeit. It would be easy… but Rocio and Finn would have to get down on Callum’s level, wrestling with their consciences the entire time. Then they’d have guilt hounding at them throughout the Exam as well as the realization that they’ve probably become what the examiners want them to become: ruthless.

Callum could have clashed beautifully with our noble protagonists. He could have illustrated the pitfalls of outright ignoring harmony for your own selfish purposes. He could have challenged our heroes so much better than any of the grimdark tests in the Exam. He had all the qualities of a good initial opponent meant to stir the pot before the real trouble comes bearing down on the heroes. Not the final opponent who, by the way, was taken down way too easily.

Heroes are only as good as the people they fight. What does it say when our two main characters had what can only be considered as a skirmish with a middling to inadequate mage who we were never given a chance to give a damn about? Nothing good, I tell you.

IV.D. In Prestissimo: Other Characters

Usually, when you have a couple of important players in your story, you’d want them to be distinct from one another. If you want to communicate your theme efficiently, you’d want your characters – yes, even the minor ones – to represent different interpretations of the theme. Doing so would ensure that your characters can be differentiated from one another beyond just their physical descriptions and mannerisms. The characters would play off one another in unique ways, subtly giving the reader hints as to what the moral argument of the book is even before the climax of the story.

Ruthless Magic had six (seven if you include Mark… which we all know would be futile) characters including the two leads. If you took out three of the kids in Rocio and Finn’s group, the story wouldn’t suffer that much. I’d go as far as to say that the story would improve if there were only three or four kids in the group. Each of the extraneous characters’ minute narrative purposes could be distributed among the remaining cast and the story would have been so much more compelling.

Here are the three characters that I haven’t mentioned before: Desmond (blind nerdy kid), Judith (girl weirdly attached to her purse), and Lacey (often described as wearing a dress too large for her). Lacey, to her credit, has some function in the story, albeit a random and inconsequential one. At the final stage of the Exam, Lacey goes mad with power (and you can bet Rocio blamed herself for Lacey coming unhinged) and separates from the group. She comes back at the battle royale, tries to attack a prone Finn in a last ditch attempt at making Champion, and nearly gets burned out by Rocio. We never really learn much about Lacey throughout the book to care about her betrayal though. Meanwhile, Desmond and Judith could be cut out from the book entirely and nothing would change. I suppose you could argue that Desmond is there to show us that some people in the Exam have to work harder than others (he has to make up for his lack of sight with his magic at all times) but it feels rather hollow since we never get a deeper insight to his struggles. Judith… I don’t even know her deal. I guess she’s there to constantly express suspicion and distrust on the Confed (and the consequences of such dissent) but… at that point we already kind of get it. These three characters aren’t integral to the main story and should have either been cut from the first draft or replaced with more interesting characters.

If there were only four kids in a group (I’m including Callum in this fantasy of mine), I’d keep Lacey’s story beat and give it to Prisha. Prisha is Finn’s best friend and is one of the reasons why Finn declared for the Exam. If Prisha breaks down the way Lacey did, it would have been so much more emotional. Heck, Prisha could even turn on Rocio instead of Finn. There would have been actual stakes for our characters. There would have been some drama! At the very least it would give Prisha’s character something to do other than echo Finn’s points and briefly get angry at Rocio.

Characters, a Conclusion

I think I’ve went on enough to build my case enough to say that Ruthless Magic had really weak characters. The main characters were hollow and boring – they were too good and noble to be real people. Each main character’s arc felt lopsided and jarring. And they and every character in the story were inadequate variations on the theme either because of their design or their use in the plot.

Next week (probably) I’ll wrap up this ridiculously long Book Talk of mine. In the finale, we’ll explore the ineffective conflict and resolution, talk about the weird 9/11 plot device (and the can of worms it opened), and finally – FINALLY – put an end to this fever dream. I might even reveal the real reason why I went in so hard on this one book. Who knows? Stay tuned to find out.

2 thoughts on “Book Talk | Ruthless Magic Pt. 2: Characters, Variations on Theme

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