Monday, May 12, 2014

TOTW: Magic Systems in Fantasy

Magic, and the way it's used, can be one of the most fascinating aspects of fantasy fiction. 

Especially when the magic is creating plot opportunities and restrictions that directly impact the plot, like the rule that "the wand chooses the wizard" (and all the plot ramifications that grew from that), as well as the Horcruxes which provided a means to destroy a seemingly invulnerable opponent (though they wouldn't be easy to destroy) in JK Rowling's Harry Potter series. 

Then there's The Small Science, a magic system based on light in Leigh Bardugo's Grisha Trilogy, and Dragonlance, in which spells take time to memorize and vanish from the caster's mind once used. 

There are so many ways to add dimension and thematic significance to a fantasy novel through the ways in which magic is used. Curious about which ones the Inkies would pick, I asked them for their favorites:

Elizabeth Bunce:
I was especially intrigued by the way magic developed over the course of Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy. The magic is formed through wishes, which have varying values, like currency. The source of the magic comes from the energy binding together multiple parallel universes--but no one understands this, so any magic practiced tends to be haphazard guessing, at best. Ignorant practitioners must instead tap into the energy created by pain, so the actual cost of doing magic ends up being very high--which is perfect for the dark, complex, and war-torn world Taylor creates in the series. It also brings magic down to an intensely intimate level, adding another layer of emotional resonance to the books. The magic isn't just there as a worldbuilding background or a prop; it's woven through the lives of all the characters, and it hurts.

Leah Cypress:
I really love the magic system in LJ Smith's Night of the Solstice - it is all about mirrors being used to cross between worlds, and the way she depicts it is magical and poetic, but at the same time it all works very logically. As a kid I was always fascinated with mirrors, and wrote a dozen unpublishable stories about people's reflections coming to life, so this was right up my alley.

Miriam Forster:
One of my favorites is the Tradition magic in Mercedes Lackey's Five Hundred Kingdoms books. It's an impersonal, powerful force that tries to force people's lives into the shape of stories that have already been told, mainly fairy tales and often grim ones. (so to speak). The characters have to work around and within Tradition to save people, while trying to carve out new stories for the magic to use. It's a fresh take on some old tales and a lot of fun. 

Amy Butler Greenfield:
One system that I love is Holly Black's magic-meets-the-mob setup in The Curse Workers series, where magic has been prohibited since 1929, but certain families deal in it illegally. There are several kinds of magic-all of which can only be worked bare-handed-and each one has its own Achilles heel. Death workers, for example, lose a body part every time they cause a death. It's a beautiful system that runs as smoothly as a Rube Goldberg machine, set in a universe where the Godfather meets 1940s screwball comedy. Delicious fun.

These are some of our favorites, but now we'd like to hear from you. Which fantasy story has the best system of magic of all time?

Lia Keyes is a London-born speculative fiction writer based in California, represented by Laura Rennert of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She's the founder of the Steampunk Writers & Artists' Guild, and development strategist for Ellen Hopkins' non-profit foundation, Ventana Sierra, dedicated to training at-risk youth for a brighter future.
Website:  |  Twitter: @LiaKeyes


  1. This was such an interesting post. I loved L. J. Smith's magic involving mirrors that Leah Cypress mentioned. My own favorite magic in books goes back to my childhood and the Psammead trilogy by Edith Nesbit Bland. This strange, prehistoric creature they accidentally dug up could grant wishes, but they always came out wrong, and each new chapter was a new and bizarre adventure coming out of the with. The second book, The Phoenix and the Carpet, was also about wishes, and the third book, The Amulet, involved an amulet missing one part that could take them back to ancient Egypt. It was really a great trio of magical books.

  2. I'm not sure what magic system is the best of all time, but I'm especially fond of Leigh Bardugo's in the Grisha trilogy. For all sorts of reasons but especially that the magic users get stronger and healthier as they use their powers and weaker if they don't use them.

    I've always loved the magic in the Eragon books and - though the magic system is sort of questionable - also in The Burning Sky.

    And last but not least, the wizardry in Cinda Williams Chima's Seven Realms series made me so fascinated with wizards and magic that I've been biased to the subject since.

    I really love the way you explained the magic in the DoSaB trilogy! Flawless explanation. Definitely a favorite of mine as well!

  3. Fun post! I loved the magic system in Cornelia Funke's Inkheart series. The idea of reading words from a book aloud and bringing those characters into your own world is awesome. And the flip side of having someone from this world transported into the world of the book is a great twist.

    Similar to that magic world is the one from The NeverEnding Story (admittedly, I haven't read the book, only seen the movies), where an ordinary boy is the key to saving a fictional world he is reading about.

    The crossing of the worlds between reader and fiction is always a fun concept. What young reader doesn't want to live in the world of their favorite book?

  4. The first series that entered my mind was Shannon Hale's Books of Bayern series. In her fantasy world some people have the ability to 'speak' to nature and the elements. Like wind, fire, water, & trees. I'm doing a bad job making it sound interesting, but it really is! =)

  5. Lurker here, chiming in! I'm working on a magic system for a new series so this post is very timely in feeding my current obsession :). I second the adoration for Inkheart -- such a lovely, charming, and also thrilling idea. I love the magic system in Lois McMaster Bujold's Sharing Knife series, and the way the characters extrapolate from the rules of magic to basically create new forms of blended magic. It's just so elegant and coherently imagined. A real inspiration.

    I haven't checked out the Books of Bayern, sounds right up my alley! I'm going to go look them up right now. :)


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