Given our coverage of Worm, I figured it would only be fair to increase the visibility of the other largely popular (as large as web serials can be, anyway), completed web serial Ra, by Sam Hughes. For the spoiler-free-est impression of Ra, I can only suggest the flavor text at the top of the main site. If you’re wary of the premise, I’d suggest reading the third chapter “From Ignorance, Lead Me To Truth”, as it’s fairly standalone, and, treated as a short story, ranks among my favorites.
All that said, the basic premise of Ra is that magic was discovered in the 1970s, and that people are still trying to figure out how it works. The main characters are college students pursuing the equivalent of a Bachelor’s of Science in Magic Engineering. The early chapters establish the different character personalities, relationships, etc. and open a handful of dangling plot threads.
I will pause here because we live in a world in which Harry Potter exists, including an internet containing several hundred million words of Harry Potter fanfiction. In some sense, it’s impossible now to write a story about magic that isn’t culturally informed by the works of Harry Potter. There are ways to subvert this sort of influence—Lev Grossman’s The Magicians¸ for example, does an excellent job playing with these themes, but J. K. Rowling’s specter is nigh unavoidable.
In Harry Potter, magic is the reification of escapist fantasy—it is the (literal) vehicle by which the abused boy who lives under the stairs (literally) flies away from his poisonous circumstances and becomes ensconced in a world tailor made for him to be the hero. “Because it’s magic” is the ontological ground floor of Harry Potter—the world need go no deeper because the story is both unconcerned with and independent of the mechanics of magic.
In Grossman’s The Magicians Trilogy, magic is the nihilism of escapist fantasy—it is the vehicle by which the prodigy boy escapes his upper middle class upbringing, dicks around at the equivalent of magical Oxford for four years, and squanders his twenties in probably exactly the same way he would have if magic hadn’t existed in the first place. Magic is the energy which drives a purposeless Proto-Narnia, requires devilishly complicated actions to perform, and provides only grief and listlessness to those who use it (Michael Grubb is still mad at me for making him read The Magicians). “Because it’s magic” is the bitter mantra of failed magicians flailing to make sense of a profoundly chaotic system which actively avoids comprehension.
In Ra, magic is so completely neither of those things it’s difficult for me to get across, mainly because doing so would spoil some of the huge reveals of the story. Ra is a story about magic in a profoundly different way—it’s a story about people trying to figure out how magic works in a universe where that problem actually has a meaningful solution. In Ra, “Because it’s magic” is a central mystery.
Now, Ra takes some warming up. The first explicit indication of Big Things Happening Behind The Scenes occurs something like seven chapters into the serial. Furthermore, these indications often come in the form of quixotic, seemingly plot-orthogonal chapters plopped in between the main threads of the story (although it’s relatively tame in Ra compared to Hughes’ other excellent web serial Fine Structure). At first, this can be jarring, but Hughes isn’t one to drop threads. If anything, this sort of narrative structure ratchets up the tension once the plot begins to knot into place
Stylistically, Ra is a science graduate student’s ode to the magical genre (Hughes himself has a Master’s in Mathematics from Cambridge). This might seem worrisome when the central protagonist, Laura Ferno, appears to be introduced as a Mary Sue magical genius wizard with a mysterious past at the beginning of the story, but this is satisfyingly subverted. If anything, Hughes’ background gives him the perfect perspective to explore the flaws of the technically brilliant. He leverages this expertise in his characterisation of the Ferno sisters as an embodiment of the friction between experimentalists (Laura) and theorists (Natalie). I also enjoyed his envisioning of the study of magic as a process akin to constructing difficult science experiments–for those unfamiliar with the day to day grunt work of science as-it-is-actually-practiced, Hughes’ depiction is spot on.
The author ran into severe writer’s block in the later chapters, and I think the ending arcs suffer for it a bit–especially if you were following along as the serial was being written. Nonetheless, Ra is a solid SciFi/Fantasy story, which, if this were a just world, would be considerably more popular than it currently is (Hey HBO, can you do the thing you did with A Song of Ice and Fire, but with Ra and Worm?). Don’t forget to check out some of the author’s other work, as well.
Rating: A large number out of A slightly larger number
Elevator pitch: Seriously not another Harry Potter fanfiction guys, I swear.
Favorite moment: Abstract weapon.
Go read Ra now you have no excuse it’s even completely free and on the internet for your immediate enjoyment gosh