Book Talk | Ruthless Magic Pt. 3: Conflict, Plot Devices, and a Coda on Theme

Part 1 | Part 2

Nine years ago, I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the first book of the genre-defining trilogy. It was one of the first YA dystopia books that I’ve read and arguably one of the best. Well, I’m remembering the book with nostalgia glasses on so, naturally, I only recall the good. But I digress.

Although it’s been a decade since I read that book, I still distinctly remember its incredible finale. I remember how my heart stopped when, after defeating the last Tribute with the promise of both Katniss and Peeta winning together, the Gamemakers amend their their previous rule change just to squeeze in one last dramatic twist to the Hunger Games. I remember the gut-wrenching visual of Katniss and Peeta looking at each other, realization dawning on them of what the Gamemakers were telling them to do. And I remember that absolutely victorious moment when the two characters force the Gamemakers to take back their amendment by choosing to commit suicide together than kill the other. Say what you will about the trilogy but that right there was some straight up tremendous writing.

That ending worked so well because the conflict between Katniss and the Gamemakers (and, in a way, the totalitarian government of Panem) was steadily brewing all throughout the story. Katniss’s provocations against the Gamemakers grew bolder and bolder, culminating into the ultimate act of defiance. Certain scenes even foreshadowed the ending. The Hunger Games was skillfully crafted to have achieved such a powerful conclusion.

I will always remember that ending no matter how many books I read in my lifetime because there’s just something so poignant about a young girl whose entire life was governed by a power she could never hope to fight back yet actually triumphing in the end. 

Ruthless Magic, in comparison…. well, let’s just say that even though I reread it just recently, the ending is already swimming out of focus and I have to consult my timeline notes to jog my memory.

Here’s another line from John Truby’s Anatomy of Story regarding themes: “In a good story, the theme is largely hidden; it is quietly growing in the minds of the audience, and it will hit with full force at the end.” Although I was much younger and had inadequate critical thinking skills nine years ago, I knew even then that The Hunger Games was a good story. Now I just have a better idea as to why I felt and still continue to feel that way.

Ruthless Magic, as I’ve said a dozen times in this series, did a poor job in relating its theme to the rest of the story. It was simultaneously too hidden but also too obvious. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ending. 
Admittedly, Ruthless Magic’s ending borrowed a few beats from The Hunger Games’ – the standoff between the heroes and the unseen game masters, the heroes deciding that enough is enough and refusing to fight anymore, and the idea to force the game masters to give the heroes what they want at the risk of upsetting the public – but in this book it failed to evoke any kind of emotion. How could it when it didn’t even convince me that it had an actual conflict in the first place? Or that the antagonists were actual antagonists?

V. Conflict, an Interlude 

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How Ruthless Magic builds conflict… and resolves it

I feel like I’m a broken record here but this just bears repeating: Ruthless Magic has the sloppiest, flimsiest conflict ever. The book seemed terrified of creating tension of any kind so it resolves it just as quickly as it brings it up. Seriously, every time the story seems to have some semblance of drama, it turns it around and assures us readers that things are actually ok. Don’t worry about it.

Callum is actively sabotaging other examinees so early on in the Exam! And the examinees going to be divided into groups soon! How can our heroes possibly deal with- wait, Callum isn’t in Rocio and Finn’s group? Oh.

Prisha is a mole! She’s been secretly snitching to the examiners who among the other examinees has been talking shit about the Exam and the Confed. And the dissenters are suspiciously snuffed out as the Exam goes on? Finn is going to be devastated and Rocio is going to be in deep trouble! Or not. Finn isn’t too pressed and Rocio’s too good at hiding her real feelings so…

The Exam is a lie! Champions are actually going to be soldiers fighting against extremist groups. Rocio and Finn are forced to keep on going even though it’s against their morals and- what’s that? They can quit any time?

BAFFLING, I say.

And you might be thinking, well, at least the real antagonist of the book, the ominous and mysterious examiners, strike fear into the hearts of our heroes and, by extension, the reader’s. Nothing could be further from the truth.

V.A. The Non-Antagonists

As I said in the previous instalment, the closest thing to a direct antagonist this book had was Callum. However, I said that only because the supposed main antagonist in this book, the nebulous examiners (as well as the Confederation), really don’t give a damn about the main characters thus don’t fit the description of antagonist. That being said, on the interest of this Book Talk, let’s just permit the examiners the title of antagonist. They do stand in the way of Rocio and Finn’s goals… detachedly, yes, but still. It’s the examiners that force the main characters in dangerous situations. It’s the examiners that pose a threat against the two characters’ desires. And it’s the examiners that get to decide whether the heroes reach their goals. But wven with all of that, the examiners are still literally the worst antagonists I’ve read in recent years.

Yes, the examiners (and the Confed) have successfully acted the part as a looming threat that our young heroes seemingly have no hope of overcoming but, for the purpose of the narrative, they suck as the opposition. For starters, they’re too powerful. They literally control everything and everyone in the Exam so the two heroes are but mere pawns being pushed around the board. This massive imbalance of power takes away any possibility that the characters could ever succeed against them. Even Rocio who is basically an all powerful goddess in her own right never managed to slip out of the examiners grasp, never resist them in some way that will cause the examiners at least minor inconvenience. 

Forgive me for constantly bringing up another (much more competent) book in all of this but I have to since The Hunger Games and Ruthless Magic have so many similarities, particularly in this area. THG also had a fairly similar situation where the Gamemakers held Katniss captive in their own manufactured environment where they play around with her life as they see fit. What made THG different though was that Katniss was always finding ways to fight back against the Gamemakers. She started with small, seemingly negligible acts of defiance which got more brazen until she took her last stand at the end. Katniss and Peeta – regular teenagers with the lowest chance of success – manipulated the Gamemakers by playing the game by their own rules. 

In Ruthless Magic we are never given any indication that the examiners give a rat’s ass about the characters – main and minor. Rocio or Finn never really tried to find a loophole in the system where they could get the better at the Confed either. They’re literally following everything the examiners tell them to do. Even with Rocio’s pseudo-teenage revolutionary rhetoric, she doesn’t really come up with ways to subtly give the Confed the middle finger. That scene where she tries to disarm the bomb without killing the woman wearing it was more of an illustration of Rocio’s hubris than defiance. And even her refusal to do as the examiners instruct her isn’t noted by anyone.

Moreover, the examiners have nothing at stake in the story. It doesn’t matter to them if the main characters win or lose – they’re going to get soldiers anyway. In THG, the Hunger Games was broadcasted to a nationwide audience who were invested in Katniss and Peeta’s survival. The Gamekeepers could stand to lose one or the other – heck, it’d make for a more dramatic finale and the surviving Tribute would be easier to control. But if both of them were gone, there was too much risk of a riot. People were already deeply unhappy to begin with so giving even the most pampered citizens reasons to question their authority was dangerous. It was a highly strategic move.

What do the examiners lose if either Rocio or Finn die? Finn’s uncle is a high ranking official so I suppose they could have feared his wrath if anything happened to his nephew. But it wasn’t as though Finn was treated any different from the rest so the examiners probably knew Finn was fair game. Losing Rocio – an obviously powerful mage – would mean losing a top rate soldier but they could also reason that Rocio was too powerful to keep. And either of them making Champion has no merit or detriment to the examiners either. 

The examiners don’t care about either of our main characters, that much is obvious. This means that they’re not compelling antagonists. And because we’re only in Finn and Rocio’s POV, we’re never given any insight on these examiners so they’re really just vague and faceless entities just going about their business. 

And, like with almost every one of this book’s problems, a little tweaking here and there could have solved everything. For one, MAKE THE EXAM MANDATORY. Then when things get messy, the characters are completely trapped and forced to see it through the end. I mean, I get that the book implied that Finn and Rocio were much too passionate about magic to leave but it’s conveyed so poorly – literally fast-forward to the morning after?! – that it almost seems like the two forgot that that option exists.

More importantly, we have to see at least some reaction from the antagonists. Okay, we won’t know much about the examiners or the Confed in the first book, that’s fair. But we still need a way to get a feel of what the other side is thinking. We need a character who is in communication with the examiners so we could at least visualize the bad guys as actual living people instead of just forces of nature that care not a whit for anyone or anything. If we had a character who was connected to the examiners, we would have gotten clues as to what they’re thinking. Were the examiners ever impressed by our heroes’ progress? Were they ever annoyed at any of the examinees questioning their methods at some point? Were they in any way invested in the Exam as much as the examinees were, if not for their own personal entertainment, than for their careers?

At the risk of repeating my points in the previous Book Talk, what I’m actually trying to say is that Finn should have been the examiners’ mole. Not Prisha.

V.B. How Finn Could Have Justified Having His Own POV Chapters

Yes! Another tangent about how Finn could have been used as a second main character properly!

Imagine this. Rather than Finn being Rocio’s identical copy, he could have had an internal conflict of his own, besides his desire to prove himself. What if he didn’t get Chosen from the get go? What if the Confed contacted him shortly after he declared for the Exam with the proposition to ensure his entry to magical college if he strikes a deal with the examiners? Finn has to report back to the examiners every now and then about suspicious talk within the examinees. They could have chosen Finn as a favor to his high-ranking uncle. Heck, Finn being a mole could have even been used as an excuse as to why he and Rocio are in the same group. The examiners could have instructed Finn to look out for Rocio in particular because she shows the most promise but they’re still not sure about her yet. Of course, because Finn is paying so much attention to Rocio, he develops feelings for her and has to grapple with guilt over betraying her trust.

Boom. Conflict.

And you know what? Mole!Finn can still be Spy!Finn in the second book. It’d work even better because the Confed already knows that Finn can be trusted.

Prisha as the mole really went nowhere. She had one altercation with Finn and then it fizzled out to nothing after a few pages. What was even the point of it? Nobody but Finn ever found out so it’s not like Prisha herself suffered any consequences. Come on.

VI. Quick Nit Picks (*ACTUAL PAIN*)

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Oh boy…

At this point, I’ve already veered away from the topic of themes but, after at so many words on the subject in relation to Ruthless Magic, I think I’ve ran out of things to say about it.

Doesn’t mean that there isn’t a couple of other things I need to address though. I’ll try to keep this section as brief as possible – yes, I’m capable of brevity, thank you very much – since it’s not strictly about the theme of the book but they’re still quite bizarre to ignore.

9/11 as a Plot Device…c’mon, really?

Yes I’ve already expressed my incredulity over this book using 9/11 – one of the worst terrorist attacks in recent history that fundamentally changed America and, by consequence, the world – as a major plot device but I haven’t exactly explored just how ill-advised and slightly problematic it is. Especially since the book likes to throw it in the narrative every once in a while without really delving that deep into the matter.

First of all, as a non-American, I admit that my knowledge on the attacks are only tangential but even I know how complicated the attacks were and how much of an impact it made on almost every aspect of the country. So using it as like this catalyst for the mages to reveal themselves to the public? It brings with it a lot of… questions.

9/11 rapidly became highly politicized (and it still is to this day) so why don’t we see that in this book? Why don’t the characters ever mention the Al-Qaeda – only using only the most general of terms, extremist groups – if the 9/11 in the book is the same with the 9/11 of our world? What are the different lasting effects of the half unsuccessful attack on the World Trade Center besides only losing one of the buildings? Also… where are the Muslim mages? Islamophobia and 9/11 are intrinsically tied together yet in Ruthless Magic, mages seem to be the minority that’s the most prosecuted despite literally fighting for their nation’s freedom. Shouldn’t mages be hailed as heroes like people do with soldiers?

The book tiptoed around 9/11, not fully committing to the idea or exploring just how different the world would be, yet made it such a landmark event in mage history. The book could have literally created another massive terrorist attack – post-9/11 even – only this time fully prevented by the mages. At least with a fictional attack, there wouldn’t be that much historical weight to it.

It’s just a little iffy that the book sweeps most of the social, political, and economic effects of the attacks under the rug. It’s like the only important thing to talk about it was the Global War on Terror it incited. I mean I understand if the author didn’t want to (or couldn’t) discuss those effects in greater detail but still… why use 9/11 at all?

The US Gov’t is just chill now? 

Probably the most unbelievable thing in this fantasy book is how the US government didn’t even try to meddle with Confed’s activities. Because if there’s one thing the US government is famous for, it’s the fact that they mind their own business.

For real though, this book wants me to seriously believe that the Confed managed to strike a deal with the non-magic government that allows them essentially total independence? No oversight or accountability? The Confederation is extremely powerful and potentially dangerous yet the government is just going to give them free reign to do whatever? Even give them an island of their own to conduct magic business and the sorts?

Sure the book tells us that Confed is constantly getting hounded by the non-magic government but we don’t really see it. In fact, there aren’t even any non-mage characters in the book to give us an idea how the normal folks view magic. Which brings me to my next point…

Mages are cool. Non-mages are shit.

While we don’t have any non-mages in the story, what we do hear about them aren’t exactly flattering. Either they’re hostile against mages or completely helpless against them. In fact, here’s a disturbing line from Prisha when Disposable Character #2 shares an anecdote about his mother forcing him to eat an apple with the skin on and him outsmarting her with magic.

Are we supposed to root for these characters?

Oh yeah, the non-mage people in this book are referred as Dulls but, honestly, it’s such a dumb term that I refuse to use it. God, it’s so uninspired and, well, dull.

I understand that there’s a whole trope about magical people looking down on non-magical people – Harry Potter, for instance, was constantly disparaging muggles for how boring and inattentive they were – but just the fact that us readers are immediately supposed to assume that the non-magic people are lesser than the mages, it’s a little off putting. Especially since we don’t have any characters who aren’t or weren’t mages at some point. I can understand that Finn and Prisha wouldn’t have any non-magic friends or acquaintances since they’re from an affluent magic school. Rocio, on the other hand, went to a public school with non-magic classmates. And she had zero friends or anything. She had bullies that tried to provoke her into using magic on them but nothing else. She didn’t even seem interested in making any non-magic friends.

No wonder the non-magic folks in Ruthless Magic are so wary of mages. Mages literally want nothing to do with non-mages.

VII. Coda (with a Side of a Tiny Confession)

When you come up with a story, you don’t think about the theme or moral argument you want to convey. However, writing a good story is all about digging deep into yourself, really figure out what matters to you. It doesn’t have to be this grand, world-changing message; just something that you want your readers to think about. The theme gives a story a higher purpose besides just merely entertaining the reader. And Ruthless Magic just doesn’t seem to have the depth or nuance to sell its theme adequately. Not to me, anyway. It raises up relevant subjects like racism, prejudice, and nepotism but doesn’t follow through. It tries to say something but doesn’t present a coherent argument worth considering. It introduces interesting characters but refuses to give them any emotional depth. In short, Ruthless Magic flopped.

Look, at the end of the day, a lot of people enjoyed Ruthless Magic for being a fun and exciting romp with magical teens in their magical world having magical adventures. I get it. Really I do. If you liked this book, more power to you. This whole three-part Book Talk doesn’t even matter to anyone – themes are, after all, such vague things that most people would rather leave to pedantic English teachers (or, in my case, overly pedantic book blogger – and maybe I spent way too much time and energy writing it. I mean, who punches out more than 10 thousand words about how the first book to a YA fantasy trilogy didn’t work for them? A simple book review could have sufficed. Three long posts is just overkill.

However, it’s just so fascinating that a book that has all the ingredients for a great read would flop so disastrously because of its clumsy handling of the theme. And if it was just fascination that fuelled me, maybe this Book Talk wouldn’t have gotten so long.

But it isn’t.

This book isn’t just a regular book for me. To tell you the absolute, unfiltered truth, Ruthless Magic was actually the book that opened my eyes to my own novel’s inherent weaknesses and flaws. I needed to write this behemoth of a series to reconcile the fact that if Ruthless Magic, a book that shared a lot of similarities with my novel’s first draft, didn’t entertain or inspire me, there was no hope for my novel either. This isn’t to sound pretentious or anything, I swear. I just recognized a lot of elements in this book and in my own work – so much that it was actually a little uncomfortable. All that focus on the magic system and worldbuilding but not enough on the real meat of the story, setting up tragic and conflicted characters only to forget about making them actual people, a cartoonishly evil organization masquerading as a force for good… it was creepy, I tell you.

While I stand by everything I said in this three-part Book Talk series, I also have to admit that this might just be an outlet for me to bury the decaying corpse that is my novel’s first draft. And now, ten thousand words later, maybe I finally have.


Finally! It’s over! I’ve literally exhausted everything I wanted to talk about. Well, not really since I left out certain topics that I initially had on my outline but whatever. No one cares.

If you read all three parts… Wow. Also, why? But in all seriousness, thank you for tagging along with me on this absurdly long journey into the world of Ruthless Magic. I hope you I’ve enlightened you with a thing or two about themes. God knows I spent enough words on the subject.

I don’t have an outro so I’m just going to borrow from one of my favorite podcasts: stay sexy and don’t get murdered.

3 thoughts on “Book Talk | Ruthless Magic Pt. 3: Conflict, Plot Devices, and a Coda on Theme

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