Ruthless Magic by Megan Crewe (SPFBO Review)
T.O. Munro has stepped in on behalf of The Fantasy Hive to help out with the final stages of SPFBO 4!
SPFBO – aka the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off – is a contest organised by Mark Lawrence with the aim of celebrating the best amongst – you guessed it – self-published fantasy. Read more about its origins here, and check out the current finalists’ scoreboard here.
Megan Crewe’s book – with its teenage protagonists, budding romance and eschewing of expletives – sits firmly on the Young Adult shelves. Yet like the Harry Potter series – with which Ruthless Magic shares some significant resonances – it still has appeal for a more traditional fantasy audience.
Crewe has imagined a world like Rowling’s, where a caste of humans with the capacity for magic live within our contemporary society. Where Rowling has quaint “muggles,” Crewe has the more dismissive “dulls”; where Rowling has the “Ministry of Magic,” Crewe has the more sinister “Confed”; where Rowling has derogatory “mudbloods” to set against her wizard born, Crewe has a more classist “new magic” versus “old magic.”
However, for all the ruin wrought at Hogwarts, Rowling’s world still sits almost invisible alongside our own “real” world. Crewe’s wizards, by contrast, have declared themselves to the world as a direct consequence of the 9/11 attacks and come out to help defend their country. This has triggered a reaction of suspicion from the unmagical populace not unlike the popular prejudice against mutants in the X-Men films. The magic-using community – under the Confed’s leadership – have therefore taken steps to show they can train, control and discipline their own.
Which is what pitches our paired first person protagonists, Finn and Rocio, and a selection of friends, allies and enemies, into an “examination” which blends aspects of the Hunger Games, Harry Potter’s Goblet of Fire and even Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. The struggle to succeed in the examination takes up the vast majority of the story, and with dispassionate examiners setting the cruellest of tests the book certainly earns its title Ruthless Magic.
There is a risk in this kind of test/quest story that the outcome can seem like a foregone conclusion. Like teen slasher movies, the reader looks for surprises not so much in who falls by the wayside but how and when. However, Crewe does manage to throw some challenging curveballs into the plot mix – including one just past the 50% mark that dispelled some significant preconceptions on my part.
This is a thoroughly professionally produced book. There were no typos that caught my eye. The writing gets the job done efficiently and at good pace, albeit without quite having that smattering of elegant lines and turns of phrase that can do much to season the reader’s experience.
The chapters alternate in first person between old magic Finn and new magic Rocio, and at times it took me a little double take to tell whose head I was in. There is much diversity to admire, and Crewe takes the chance to establish and challenge a prejudice of class and background; Finn’s private academy schooling tripping out spells in Latin or Greek, while Rocio’s rawer self-taught talent takes root in the comfort of her natural Spanish.
There is also an interesting juxtaposition of roles. Rocio leads with formidable spellcasting, drawing all the enemy fire like a World of Warcraft tank. Finn’s skills are more about relationships, about building a team through his amenability and avoiding being a threat – though there are times when he flings out a spell that seems to belie his status as the weak one.
Crewe’s magic system is left a bit vague – which is fitting, perhaps, in that the book is very much about seeing the characters use magic rather than learn it. There are shields and ‘chantments, objects can be tied to shockingly lethal threats, and spellcasting reasonably enough drains the users. There is a risk, though, in that vagueness. Some solutions might appear a bit deus ex machina. Other simpler options, which the reader might expect lie within the character’s reach, get overlooked.
Ruthless Magic is set in a near contemporary world where the unveiling of magic deliberately followed as a response of the magical community to the 9/11 attack. That motif of magic being used to defend against international terrorism and other threats is a mix that I found myself a little uncomfortable with – magic being given a counter insurgency role as though it were another weapon in the CIA’s armoury.
To be fair, there are points where Crewe’s protagonists share my discomfort, and the title of the series – Conspiracy of Magic – suggests that this view of how magic could/should be used will be subjected to more rigorous scrutiny as our characters grow and develop through the series. It put me in mind of how I felt about the animatronic film Team America: World Police, a film that made a satirical point but still seemed to flip between deriding and embracing its central message of global policing in defence of American interests.
If Ruthless Magic suffers a little against the other high quality SPFBO#4 entries that I have read it is in its quest/test format which ultimately constrains the action, setting and character. Later volumes may have more scope to stretch the series’ epic narrative muscles – while still retaining the focus on a few sympathetic characters who have emerged more or less victorious from the trials of the first book.
Final score: 7/10