By Kent Davis
I grew up on a steady diet of macaroni and cheese and magic. The mac and cheese have faded, but my addiction to magic is strong. I like my fantasy with generous helpings of the arcane, and when I set out to write A Riddle in Ruby, I knew I wanted its magic to have a different flavor.
Don’t get me wrong, I adore the deep and ancient arcane deeds of those who wear floppy hats: Gandalf, Dumbledore, Granny Weatherwax. That said, Ruby Teach’s story takes place in an alternate-history American colonies, and I needed an arcane mechanism that matched the pluck and gumption of those times. Something that fit with a world perched on the edge of the Enlightenment, as well as on the edge of a vast and unexplored (to the colonists) frontier. It also needed a quality that would keep young and older readers fascinated. It required, for lack of a better word, panache.
Something like this.
Isn’t that FLIPPIN’ AWESOME? That time-lapse video is nothing more than tin, which because of a very low temperature, transforms to another powdery kind of tin.
And no matter its actual explanation, I call it CRAZY AWESOME.
If you do a little digging online with keywords like “chemistry transformation,” “chemistry experiment,” or—even better—”chemistry explosion”—you’ll find a raft of videos of similar events. Innocent liquids that when combined change into mad, grasping tentacles of foam. Chemical volcanoes. Fire blizzards!
So why not turn this already spectacular form of science into magic? It already possesses a metric ton (see what I did there with the metric system? Science!) of consistent rules and laws, which every good magic system needs. But the protagonists—and, let’s be honest, the readers—don’t really have time to watch the sometimes glacially slow rate of chemical reactions. This new science-magic needed to be spectacular, yes, but it also needed to be speedy! Okay, okay, so what if it was linked to your own personal energy, so you could jump-start the laws of reality with your interior fuel, your dynamis, your mojo?
Chemystry is—besides being spelled with a “y”—different from the chemistry in our world in one very important way. The practitioners, called Tinkers, can give the regular normal laws of chemistry a little push. A nudge, using that internal mojo. I know, “nudge” is a very scientific term. The tinkers in A Riddle in Ruby call it “harnessing your quintessence.”
Let’s stick with “nudge.”
These little nudges can have a powerful impact. Take water, for example. A big pond of frozen ice will melt in what? A couple of months? So what happens if a tinker nudges the melting point of ice? Poof! You’re head-deep in water when you thought you were dry. Or worse—what if the tinker transformed the ice into carbon jelly and imprisoned you in it? And then lit it on fire? Ow.
Simple. Give a nudge, alter the law.
Of course, magic should always come at a cost. Great tinkers have performed miracles. They have literally moved mountains, but if they push their inner reserves too far, they suffer. Sometimes even die. It’s also far from easy, and the combination of talent, control, and training necessary to perform great feats of chemystry is rare, indeed. Certainly it isn’t found in Ruby Teach.
One of my favorite facets of A Riddle in Ruby is that the main character is not a tinker. She’s merely an apprentice thief, so all of these chemystral goings-on still retain an aura of mystery, and we get to explore it alongside her. There may be specific explanations for all of the crazysauce happening all around her—cobalt gearbeasts with the mad eyes of living dogs, alchemycal automatons made of living molten metal, strange powders that can erase timber walls or even erase you from sight—but she has no idea what those explanations might be. So to her, well, they’re magic.
I like the idea of a protagonist for young readers struggling through a world controlled by forces that she does not fully understand. To Ruby, the world—with all of its strange mechanisms, hidden agendas, and shadowy motives—is a riddle.
Isn’t it that way for all of us?
Kent Davis has spent most of his life making stories. He is an author, game designer, and actor. He lives with his wife and a wily dog‐ninja named Bobo in Bozeman, Montana. You can read an excerpt of A Riddle in Ruby here, and you can also follow Kent on twitter.