Just a Bystander
Everyone wants to believe they are the hero of their own story. But in a world where prophecies are real, what happens if you're not the Chosen One?
A budding arcanist named Caden enrols in the Academy, entering the same cohort as one of the legendary Chosen Ones, and finds himself caught in a tangle of fate that threatens to unravel the entire Empire.
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Cover art by Fuyu Dust.
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"Just a Bystander" is a work of love and I intend to keep posting it for free on RoyalRoad for everyone to enjoy. As someone who has been blessed with a full-time job that has remained stable even in the midst of a global pandemic, I would like to stress that I am able to continue writing with or without financial support and that you should not feel compelled to put dollars into this.
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While like other reviewers I have to admit that the magic system is well-built and interesting to learn about, I will have to disagree with the sentiment that this single fact makes this story worth five stars. I’m especially dismayed by the current Top Review claiming that “…its strongest element, the talkin bout magic, overshadows everything else.” and then implying that this would only lower the rating to 9/10.
Because that’s a terrible thing. The story is quite average if we don’t take into consideration the magic. The characters are flat and two dimensional, to the point that we get to know very little other than a few gimmicks for each of them. The MC’s a prodigy, Ambrose is the Chosen One, Devon’s rich, Kevin is a dick, Lynus is Kevan’s reasonable brother, Jerric is just there most of the time. Other than that not much is established if we exclude their understanding of arcanophany. I’m especially disappointed by the MC who looked quite promising at the very start of the story, in twenty chapters he barely had any development, we simply got to know why he is adverse to the whole Fate Weaving thing. That’s even worse if you consider that the entire story is told in first person, which is supposed to focus on the MC, and that you could easily change the whole thing to third person without taking anything away from the story.
Another miss-step was the almost complete lack of detail. This is one of those things that bothers me the most, because other readers have mentioned it and dismissed it right away mentioning how it is not essential. And I can’t stress enough how * that is, stories need detailed descriptions, it is simply the amount that has to vary from book to book. But this fiction generally doesn’t give us more than the bare minimum, and it pays the consequences of that choice. I can think of various examples but let me give you a pair:
1) the first time we meet Ambrose we instantly know he is the hero, why? Because he and the Chosen One are the only people who are said to have black hair. This is only made worse by the fact that up to that point they are the only two characters whose hair-colour is mentioned, making the author’s intentions even more obvious. This means the reader has to wait for a few chapters for the MC to catch up and discover something we already knew. If the author had been more subtle and given us a lot of more obscure details this would have made the whole thing a lot more ambiguous and consequently more pleasant to read, as we would have been left uncertain whether it was a red herring. Instead we got a really tedious wait for the reveal of an already known fact.
2) we get a nearly identical situation when the students are tested at the Advanced Glyphs class. We know the kids have to find a hidden glyph for the lesson to start. And where is it hidden? Naturally in the light orb, not that the reader could really get this wrong as- I shit you not- it is the only piece of furniture described in the entire room. Once again this is a wasted possibility to create a sense of wonder in the reader. The answer is obvious from the very beginning.
Now that I think of it, the foreshadowing in general could use some work. The MC’ father randomly appears as a teacher in the school and it is quite off-putting how there was nothing pointing to that. It would have been much better if it had been hinted at when he talked with Caden.
One thing I won’t discuss much but I will mention is the pace, because it is horrid. In the span of twenty chapters only two days have passed. In these two days the main cast have already become friends and some drama between members of the group has already started. It’s simply ridiculous, these people should have been introduced properly, their friendship should have developed naturally in the background and with time they would have ended up becoming quite close, only after all that it would be acceptable for the drama to start. Personally when I make a new friend I can’t distinguish their faces in a crowd for the first few days, because I haven’t interacted with them enough. I certainly wouldn’t know them nearly well enough to interact with them so amicably. It would be nice if it was this easy and quick to form friendships with complete strangers, but that’s just not how people work.
Another problem that shows the author is still inexperienced, is how he still doesn’t have a good grasp of the “show don’t tell” rule. Caden’s characterisation is mostly him monologuing about how he feels for the audience, which is one of those mistakes people often commit when they write in first person. This is wrong for many reasons, but IMO the most annoying thing is that it breaks the suspension of disbelief. People simply aren’t that hyper-aware of their own thoughts, and they are not objective in the slightest when speaking about themselves. That’s why while using the first person you should make sure to show us that the MC is in denial about some things, and not being entirely honest about themselves.
Last but not least the world building. Ah, the world building is the main reason I decided to write this, because I can’t believe that with twenty reviews nobody has mentioned how the world in this story is non-existent. It’s not terrible, there is simply nothing to criticise. The Academy is the Academy. The Empire is the Empire. Those are the two only institutions mentioned and neither of them has a name, goddammit. And we are given a few additional pieces of information, but I can’t take them into consideration because they are often contradictory, or worse- raise more questions without giving any answers.
To be honest the story is still in its infancy so some of these issues could be fixed later on, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are there now. That being said if there will be large improvements, I will edit the review.
I hope my feedback will be useful.
Have a nice day.
The strengths of this story is that it has a great premise and a unique magic system. Solid writing with little to no grammatical errors. Characters also seem interesting albeit a little superficial; its only been 25 chapters or so, which is understandble.
However this story is bogged down by many info dumps, which could have been spaced out a lot more to give the reader more time to absorb the information.
But it is still an enjoyable read.
If you like magic systems, you should read this story. Because there's a whole lotta talkin about magic. Like, a lot.
To be fair, the rest of the story is solid. It's very good for RR, and above average in every catagory -- especially the prose, which is clear and readable.
My criticism of it is that its strongest element, the talkin bout magic, overshadows everything else. Most of the dialog is teachers giving magic lessons, students doing magic homework, or people discussing prophecies. The author does not stop to smell the roses. We don't even know if there are roses, because few descriptions are given about the setting. There are few physical details--except about energy orbs--and in their place are long monologues about concepts. The Magic 101 lessons have squeezed out so much other stuff the pacing feels rapid.
The characters are pretty good, but the pacing is such that their qualities are told to us rather than shown through their words and actions. They haven't had enough free time to act like normal humans.
Keep in mind these are criticisms I would give for like an actual published novel. The stars, however, are ranked on a RR amateur fiction scale. The writing is certainly good enough that I recommend everyone give it a try.
Certainly a nice well written story, though it could be more, this is certainly a good first story for the author, and i hope they can improve on this all, to make it an even better story.
The characters are quite well written and are shown as competent, intelligent characters, though given the rather lack of focus on them and the surprisingly few details, they are less than what they could be, something i hope is set to change eventually.
The thing i would praise the story the most for, is the magic system, it is seriously well built and in-depth, to a level i have seen rarely before for webfiction. I feel like the magic system in this story can rival even the likes of Mother of Learning's with time. There is just so much potentional here, and i hope it can be written right!
Though as others have said already, the magic also sort of overshadows everything else about the story, it is basically central to the story currently, and though that is not a bad thing at the moment, as it is done well currently, but i hope that the story does progress beyond the heavy magic theory and that we can get to see the world in more detail, as what already has been shown, is quite promising, especially with how well the author has been writing so far.
Dont have any complaints with the grammar for this story, its perfectly readable to me, without having any problems, though that may be because i started reading after the author cleaned up the story and changed the dialogue tags to the American standard of "" instead of ''.
Also good, if somewhat fast pacing for this story, and the story reads quite well, even with the heavy magic theory being present like everywhere so far, which somehow didnt feel that overwhelming to me, which is a nice plus.
Id recommend to the author to improve on their writing and details, and give more time to the characters. And to somehow strike a balance between the magic, and the rest of the story.
Basically the main reason to read this story so far is if you want to read about magic, which this story does REALLY well, sadly a bit to the detriment of everything else though, but i can see that changing with time. So i would absolutely recommend this story to readers interested in reading about magic, and to a lesser extent would recommend it to other readers, to atleast give it a try.
As the story has progressed, the quality has improved. The story was somewhat interesting, it's now much more interesting. While it's true this could use some TLC on earlier chapters, the state of the story is good enough to want to see it continue.
This story takes a different slant on prophecy and inevitability. Huge potential.
Do you like stories where the magic system is more of the main focus than the real characters? The author is into their version of the magic world, and it shines brighter than all other story elements. If you like that stuff, you'll love this.
It's the equivalent of a home-schooled guy going to magical Harvard. Despite the title, he's more than a bystander as his nickanme is 'Top-Scorer' since his test scores are the highest in the new class. His Dad is also a big deal in that neck of the woods. 'Chosen ones' are in the story, but the main character hates/opposes prophecy, which seems nothing like a bystander.
Excellent the magic system, intricate detail, praises here. Reading some chapters that are 'talk and sometimes eat a meal', my mind kept wandering because the story wasn't keeping my attention. (Telling and not showing.) This happened too many times for me to give more stars, and I don't plan to follow this story. Note, I found the first chapters of higher quality than the rest of the work, so don't let this review discourage and please try the story.
The characters are constantly told that "They HAVE to figure things out for themselves" to the point where they are deliberately lied to as children on how basic fundamentals of the world work.
Beyond that, most of the chapters are 1/3rd pure information dumped on the reader, no plot or characterization, and the MC has a "Sherlock" jump to the correct conclusion perfectly every time he needs to special ability.
This is the most frustrating novel I have read in my life.
Every aspect that could be interesting is jingled in front of the reader and then taken away by stuff like "can't tell".
It's like the author told the reader:
- "Behind this door are the answers to your questions".
Then very visibly pulls out a key, locks the door and walks away.
And it applies to everything.
- The Prophecy? "Can't tell" says the character.
- How to do magic? "Can't tell" says the character.
If teaching magic bogusly "stunts" you, what the hell is the point of the academy?
The story basically establishes that the best way of learning magic is doing it independedly and everyone insists in it.
What is the point of the academy?
And almost as equally infuriating is everything relating to the Prophecy because it gets the same treatment.
I hate this novel.
The Overall rating is a reflection of my enjoyment with this story.
The biggest mistake this story makes is that it substitutes internal, emotionally-driven conflict resolution for external, action-driven conflict resolution.
It feels like the author can't quite figure out how to make his 'not-a-main-character' protagonist the main character of his own story. Rather than having agency that drives his own actions, the protagonist is buffeted back and forth by fate & occasionally explains some (to be fair, very interesting) magical wobbly bits.
However, since a main character that does nothing is boring, it feels like the author then is trying to compensate for that lack of agency by making the protagonist's inner emotional life very complex, overwhelming, and going all over the place. Sure, they aren't actually doing anything with the emotions, but look at how strong they are!
There's a certain sort of 'emo' presence to that sort of storytelling but it swiftly breaks down as emotions fail to drive actions, and conflicts that should have required the protagonist to actually do something, such as arguments with friends, are instead resolved by the friends deciding to get over the argument, or the friends doing something equally bad so that everyone is square, and so on; the sheer lack of initiative the main character displays eventually grates and pushes the boundaries of suspension of disbelief.
(Also, characters of the opposite gender appear to have been completely forgotten about, which is fine except for when the author suddenly remembers them and there's a "oh yeah, and she existed too" effect.)
Other than all that, however, the story is quite good. A+ worldbuilding, a great high concept, cool magic, interesting characters. Once the author gets some more practice and figures out how to make characters interesting without overcompensating on the emotional aspect, they've got a bright future ahead of them.
I've really enjoying this so far, mostly because the magic is imaginative and the author has presented a number of mysteries that all seem related, except so far what's happening underneath the surface is still unclear. It's fun because there are so many questions; what made the prophecies? how are they related? what do they mean for Caden's future? The author has done an excellent job grabbing the reader and it is easy to keep reading to try to find out more.
Of course, it is difficult to review the story at this point, because we still know so little. However, there have been a few narrative bumps already that I feel warrant a degree of caution. In particular, the story has had trouble with foreshadowing things in a satisfying way. The first reveal of the story is so maddeningly obvious it's almost hilarious when the MC finally realizes it. The second big reveal comes so far out of left field I'm still confused about what happened. Ultimately it's hard to judge the story because as the reader we are for the most part left in the dark, so there could be reasonable explanations for what has happened so far, but there also might not be.
Part of the issue is the magic system. While many have praised its detail, I feel the density sometimes becomes more convoluted than clear. The whole system is interesting, it feels almost like a computer language applied to magic, but sometimes all the repeated attempts to describe the glyphs and arcana at work inundate the reader with details instead of providing clarity. And despite the fact that so much time is spent explaining the magic, at critical points in the story the mechanics are pretty much ignored, which makes a lot of we've learned feel a bit pointless.
In terms of characters, I've been enjoying our MC, Caden. He has an interesting backstory and purpose, as well as some character quirks that work decently. He seems to experience manic episodes, which is a good idea, but usually when he does he jumps to crazy conclusions that always seem to be right. It's good for the MC to be actively searching for answers, but as a reader I find the reasoning dubious at times, yet the narrative so far seems to indicate that he is correct.
The rest of the cast is decently fleshed out. I enjoy Caden's family, as well as his roommate. The rest of the students still feel a little vague. The author often tells us about characters rather than showing, having Caden recount arguments and conversations that would be opportune moments to explore the characters more deeply. Instead, most of the actual conversations in the book center on magic or what I would consider rather boy-ish banter. However there are hints at depth so I am looking forward to hearing more about these characters.
While I feel I have been quite critical, it's only because I've enjoyed what I read so far and am anxious for it to soon reach some satisfying answers! As the story continues many of the issues I have raised may turn out to be unfounded, given that there is so much left to uncover in this world. Recommended!