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.
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?
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.
Summary: 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]