SPFBO Review: Ruthless Magic by Megan Crewe

This is a post in my continuing series of reviews of the top 10 2018 SPFBO finalists. Disclaimer, as usual, that I am not affiliated with the contest in any way and my review has no bearing on the final results.

Not sure where to start with this one except that I liked it, a lot. I’m a pretty slow reader when it comes to print/e-book. I hardly ever finish a book in a single day like a lot of my book nerd compatriots seem to manage. But this one I devoured in three days, which, for me, is pretty darned fast (By contrast, Out of Nowhere, which was quite fast paced, took me more than a week).

Ruthless Magic is billed as Harry Potter meets the Hunger Games, which I think is an apt description. It is set in roughly current-day New York City, many years after magic users decided to come out in the open after living in secret for centuries. In order to keep the muggles dulls from being too suspicious of magic users, they remain under tight control of the North American Confederation of Mages. At age sixteen, those deemed worthy are admitted to the mage college to better learn to control their powers. The rest have their power “dampered,” that is, reduced to a narrow ability to do a single parlor trick. Unfortunately, the mage college appears to be run by Lucius Malfoy, because admission has a lot less to do with how powerful you are and a lot more to do with who your family is. But if you’re not admitted to the college, never fear! You still have one last chance to get in, by declaring for the brutal and strenuous mage’s exam, a nasty Hunger-Games-esque battle royal where teenagers are pushed to their limit and summarily tortured. Success in the exam means glory and respect and mentorship. But failure means having your magical ability removed entirely — if you’re lucky enough to survive.

This book is balanced between two POVs. The first, Finn, is a happy-go-lucky rich boy from a prominent old magic family. Only problem is, he’s really, really terrible at magic. When he’s admitted to the mage college due to his family connections, while his more-talented but muggle-born new magic friend Hermione Prisha is not, he declares for the exam anyway just to get the chance to see what he’s really worth.

This might have been a poor idea.

The other main POV is Rocío, a Mexican-American teenager living in Brooklyn, who is one of the most talented mages anyone has ever seen. Her family are also magical, but only modestly so, and not enough for any of them to earn a place in magic college. Her parents quietly accepted the Dampering when their turn came, but Rocío’s brother, Javier, decided to take the exam — and never returned. When Rocío, too, is denied entrance to the college despite her prodigious talent, she, too, opts for the exam. Not just to prove herself, but to find out what happened to her brother, and to unmask the corruption that is becoming increasingly evident within the Confederation of Mages.

Now this would normally be the part where I rant about all my little quibbles about the book, except that this time I really didn’t have any. This was a thrilling read from open to close. I loved the characters, loved (to hate) the world building, and felt deeply for everyone who was forced to endure the exam’s brutality. Some people complained about the romance — why are the two characters so focused on their feelings for one another when they are struggling to survive? But personally I thought the romance grew organically and wasn’t insta-love and never got in the way of the main plot. I also liked how Crewe avoided the classic YA love triangle. Finn has a female best friend, but it is established early on that there is nothing romantic between them, and will never be anything romantic between them. Seeing representation of a friendship between a guy and a girl without any annoying romantic tension was a pleasant surprise.

I guess the only minor negative about it was it did feel pretty reminiscent of Hunger Games at times, with some Ender’s Game thrown in for good measure. But there’s nothing really wrong with taking the genre tropes and turning them up to eleven. It felt very similar in tone and themes to Red Rising, which I also enjoyed. Like Red Rising, Ruthless Magic is brazenly unapologetic about how tropey it is, and I honestly respect that a lot.

People who might like this book

  • Fans of YA dystopias
  • Fans of tournament arcs and battle royales
  • People who like fast-paced action

People who may want to skip this one

  • People who don’t like too many YA tropes in their fiction
  • Those who are put off by teenage romance
  • Anyone who prefers secondary world fantasy

R/Fantasy 2019 Bingo Squares

  • Self-published
  • local author if you happen to live in Toronto

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