Title: Ruthless Magic
Author: Megan Crewe
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: ARC – ebook
Page Count: 352
Publisher: Another World Press
Notable Notables: Diverse characters
Recommended Readers: Fans of Urban Fantasy and The Hunger Games
Thank you to NetGalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Ruthless Magic by Megan Crewe sets off with a spellbinding start that slowly peters out well before the end. The North American Confederation of Mages selects only the most promising sixteen-year-old students to enter their academy–or so they say. Rocío Lopez, a mage from a low-standing, new-magic family has done everything right to be selected, only for the Confederation to reject her. Now, Rocío’s only choice is to have her magic burned out of her or take the secretive and deadly Mages’ Exam, the same exam where her brother lost his life.
Finn Lockwood is in a similar predicament. Having been chosen unfairly by the Confederation because of his prominent, old-magic family despite his meager abilities, Finn declares for the Exam to prove his worth and support his friend, Prisha, a skilled new-magic mage who, like Rocío, is forced to declare for the Exam or lose her magic.
From the beginning, the novel explores the issue of privilege, namely how old-magic mages are trusted by the government over new-magic mages because the newer ones could potentially turn against everything the Confederation stands for… Whatever that is.
However, it very quickly turns into a heavy-handed allegory for racism–Finn is white, and Rocío and Prisha are Latinx and Indian respectively–but it’s never examined with that particular lens in mind. Just this old-magic vs. new-magic debate. Even when other characters are brought in of varying races/backgrounds (one character, for instance, is legally blind and relies on magic to “see”), it still feels like the author is still trying to discuss discrimination without actually going there.
Really, the only character I super liked through this was Rocío. Finn was okay, but his and Rocío’s insta-love quickly bored me. Prisha started off awesome, gay-rep and all, but then she was just a name on a page. I’m not saying she was just Finn’s token gay/Indian best friend, because she wasn’t; there was something of a character going on with her. The book just very quickly became the Finn and Rocío’s Love Story show, intermixed with “deadly thing about to kill the group” events, and Prisha was just sort of there. Being moody, mostly.
The magic system itself is loose, for lack of a better term. Some characters use Latin to focus their magic, some use song lyrics, some use their native language, and somehow that combined with their aptitude makes magic happen. Or not. It’s a little unclear, and each characters’ magic and what/how they can cast seems to rely more on whatever the plot needs from it at the time than any clear rules or standards as to what magic can be or do.
Also, I really don’t understand why Finn swears by/exclaims to the Greek pantheon? And invokes Hades instead of hell? Does he just personally worship the Greek gods even in modern day? Is this an old-magic thing? Do other people in the world do it? (Signs point to no.) And if he does or it is an old-magic thing, then shouldn’t they be using Greek instead of Latin to cast magic? This was a character quirk that quickly got on my nerves because it was so random but never explained.
As for the Exam itself, there’s a lot to unpack here, and I don’t intend to cover everything. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the examiners do give a reason aka conspiracy why the Exam is so brutal. However, no explanation is given to any of the characters ever about what each part of the test is meant to reveal about the examinees nor is their performance on why they passed or failed discussed at length at all. And the majority of the book is having to read through brutal test after brutal test, so I expected some sort of payoff once I got to the end about why we all just went through that. Besides the Super Secret Reason, I got nothing, so by the time it was done, I didn’t feel anything about what I’d just read except an overwhelming sense of fatigue.
Don’t get me wrong; Ruthless Magic isn’t horribly written by any means–Crewe’s style is just fine–but what’s on the page didn’t keep me captivated for long. The cycle of tests combined with some of the characters’ repetitive discussions about the Confederation’s intentions and their doubts about the test/the government/the Exam, etc. wore on a tad too long with very little reward at the end of the day. I don’t even care what became of any of the other characters besides Rocío, and I know I was supposed to.
However, it was a good attempt, hence why I rounded my rating up to three stars, and I can see many people enjoying this story, especially those starved for diverse representation. The world-building, characters, plot, and concepts in Ruthless Magic just weren’t enough to make me feel like something new was brought to the table; I’ve already read many a book just like it and enjoyed the impact it had on me much more.