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]

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Characters with No Personality, Monsters with No Teeth: Eliza and Her Monsters

What the cover art should say: Her story is a phenomenon. Her life is a bore.

2017 has been a pretty good year in terms of reading for me. Sure I had to chop my Reading Challenge in half a few months back when I realized I couldn’t possibly finish 100 books by the end of the year but, it had to be done. Quality-wise, I’ve read a lot of great books this year so at least I have that. Which was why I took such a leap of faith when I bought the hardcover for Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia. Statistically, it was bound to be a fairly good book, a 3-star-book at the very least. And what with all the praises I’ve read in its Goodreads page, I was assured a nice, fun read.

I was wrong.

Early on, around the third chapter, I was confused as to why I couldn’t get into the book. I had expected to take an immediate liking to it. The premise was fascinating enough – high school senior Eliza Mirk sidelines as the anonymous creator of the massively popular webcomic, Monstrous Sea – so I was honestly astounded as to why I felt nothing for the book so far. But I soldiered on, hoping that maybe things would pick up after a few more chapters.

Chapter six was the chapter I realized that I was not going to like the book. I remember because I was constantly live-tweeting the book because I had a lot of emotions and no social life whatsoever. I kept of going back to GoodReads and skimming the five- and four-star reviews, baffled as to what others had seen. Could I possibly have been reading the wrong book? Was it at all plausible that the copy I bought, in an insane twist of fate, was the first draft of the book? Or an alternate, obviously inferior version of it? Because, as preposterous as that would have been, it would explain why the book was so dull, so lacking in character, so ludicrously uninteresting, yet had so many glowing reviews. It was insane. I felt like I was being gaslighted. Never had I been so misled by other people’s reviews that I suspected I was going crazy.

(For the record, this is all just my opinion. If you liked the book, awesome. I actually envy you. I didn’t like the book and I can’t pretend otherwise so I’ll rant about it. This is my blog, after all.)

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Geekerella: Making a Tired Old Trope Great Again

Modern adaptations. Loose dystopian science fiction retellings. Dark fantasy treatments. Cinderella’s story is arguably the most adapted and retold fairy tale out of all the classic children’s tales. In the YA genre alone, there are countless novels (not to mention the never-ending film adaptations) that feature Cinderella staples like the cruel step-family intent on making the heroine miserable, a prince charming waiting to be wooed, a fairy godmother itching to help, and a fallen glass slipper (or some other outlandish footwear) leading the prince back to Cinderella. The formula is so familiar, the story done so many times in so many ways, that it’s almost impossible for a person to have not seen at least one Cinderella-esque story in their entire life.

There’s a reason why Cinderella’s story is so enduring though. A poor exploited heroine struggling for her own chance of happiness despite the odds against her can easily arouse sympathy to even the least romantic humbug in the room. A sprinkling of magic, a glimmer of that “true love” shtick  and a backdrop of a hokey moral (being good and kind always has its rewards), and you’ve got yourself the archetypal escapist fairy tales with a lasting appeal.

However, not all Cinderella stories are created equal. Some faithful adaptations give little to no new material, relying solely on the public’s nostalgic love for the fairy tale, and produce a bland tale. Other loose re-tellings either butcher whatever elements made Cinderella such a timeless classic in favor of adding new flavors and concepts and ruin the story completely. Not to mention the mere fact that Cinderella has been done so many times that people just… get tired of it. Even the most beloved of tales can get unoriginal and uninspired when distilled enough times. And no matter how fancy the decor, how eccentric the appearance, it’s still the same old Cinderella story.

Such was my dilemma with Ashley Poston’s Geekerella. The contemporary young adult novel is about as obvious of a Cinderella re-telling as one can get, the title itself almost unapologetically so. Not even reading the blurb at the back of the book, I knew what to expect. I mean, what else could there be in something so blatant? However, despite all that, I was still intrigued. I had read no reviews of it and wasn’t even familiar with the publishing company that distributed it. Call it my special spidey-book sense tingling but I knew – just knew – that there was something about that book that’s worth checking out. A part of me convinced that I wouldn’t regret it if I give it a try. My instincts were firing off every alarm to get me to splurge just a little bit on this one, unassuming little novel so I had no choice but to comply.

Boy am I glad my instincts are so spot on.

[spoilers ahead!]

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