(Some More Of) The Coolest Magical Abilities in Fiction!

Posted 27th May 2021 by Sia in Blogathons, Lists, Recommendations / 1 Comment

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For Wyrd & Wonder last year, I made a list of the coolest magical abilities in fiction – which somehow is my most popular post and still gets daily hits. (??? Has someone with a large following shared it somewhere??? I have no idea.)

What’s the difference between a magical ability and a magic system? Well, after some thinking, this was what I came up with last year;

A magic system is a magic system; a magical ability is more like a superpower. The latter is a lot more limited in scope; a character with a magical ability can do one thing, rather than casting spells that could potentially do just about anything.

Since it’s not as if one list could ever capture all the fantastic magic powers out there, I decided to make a sequel list for this year’s W&W. It’s taken some doing, but in the end I’m pretty pleased with it.

Now, onto the magic!

A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe (The Salvagers #1) by Alex White
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Science Fantasy
Representation: Disabled MC, sapphic MC, F/F or wlw

Furious and fun, the first book in this bold, new science fiction adventure series follows a ragtag group of adventurers as they try to find a legendary ship that just might be the key to clearing their name and saving the universe.

Boots Elsworth was a famous treasure hunter in another life, but now she's washed up. She makes her meager living faking salvage legends and selling them to the highest bidder, but this time she got something real--the story of the Harrow, a famous warship, capable of untold destruction. Nilah Brio is the top driver in the Pan Galactic Racing Federation and the darling of the racing world--until she witnesses Mother murder a fellow racer. Framed for the murder and on the hunt to clear her name, Nilah has only one lead: the killer also hunts Boots.On the wrong side of the law, the two women board a smuggler's ship that will take them on a quest for fame, for riches, and for justice.

Alex White’s Salvager trilogy has a deceptively simple take on magic – (almost) everyone has their own ability, but with varying degrees of strength. For the purposes of this post, though, I want to focus in on Nilah, who has what’s called the Mechanist’s mark – meaning that she can connect to, take over, and direct any piece of technology. (Well – any she’s strong enough to handle. And she’s pretty damn strong.) At the beginning of the trilogy, she’s actually a race-car driver, her ability to connect to her car giving her an edge others can’t replicate. (Although she’d probably punch me for implying that’s the only reason she’s such a great racer!) In a genre where technology and magic are so often pitted against one another, it’s ridiculously cool to see someone whose magical ability is technology.

A Taint in the Blood (Shadowspawn #1) by S.M. Stirling
Genres: Queer Protagonists
Representation: All MCs are bisexual, kink

Eons ago, Homo Lupens ruled the earth. Possessing extraordinary powers, they were the source of all of the myths and legends of the uncanny. And though their numbers have been greatly reduced, they exist still-though not as purebreds. Adrian Breze is one such being. Wealthy and reclusive, he is more Shadowspawn than human. But he rebelled against his own kind, choosing to live as an ordinary man. Now, to save humanity, he must battle the dark forces of the world-including those in his own blood..."

The Shadowspawn are the inspiration for all that goes bump in the night, and they have several supernatural abilities, ranging from astral projection to shapeshifting, but the most interesting by far is their ability to manipulate probabilities – in other words, they can literally bend luck any way they please. Of course, there’s a cost to this, and not all Shadowspawn are created equal, but it’s still an incredible power that can be utilised in awe-inspiring and terrifying ways – making a gun misfire, or your enemy trip at a vital moment, or making sure you and your motorbike land safely after a death-defying…whatever it’s called when you do something incredibly stupid and dangerous with your bike. And of course, they’re all ridiculously rich because they can’t lose at the stock market – there’s a pretty funny passage near the beginning of book one where the main character doesn’t tell his financial advisor that he chooses which stocks to buy by flipping a coin…

Lifelode by Jo Walton
Genres: Fantasy
Representation: Group marriage

Lifelode is the Mythopoeic Award Winning novel from Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award winning author Jo Walton. It was published in hardcover in 2009 by NESFA Press and is now available for the first time as an ebook.

At its heart, Lifelode is the story of a comfortable manor house family. The four adults of the household are happily polygamous, each fulfilling their ‘lifelode’ or life’s purpose: Ferrand is the lord of the manor, his sweetmate Taveth runs the household, his wife Chayra makes ceramics, and Taveth’s husband Ranal works the farm. Their children are a joyful bunch, running around in the sunshine days of the harvest and wondering what their own lifelodes will be.

Their lives changed with the arrival of two visitors to Applekirk: Jankin the scholar and Hanethe, Ferrand’s great grandmother and the former lord of the manor, who has been living for many generations in the East, a place where the gods walk and yeya (magic) is so powerful that those who wield it are not quite human.

Taveth has a small, quiet ability – she catches glimpses of the past and future in the form of seeing a person’s past or future selves standing beside them. It’s not a big cinematic magic, and it’s not exactly useful, but it does help her be empathic in dealing with people, being able to see what they once were or someday will be. It’s not something she has control over – she either sees or doesn’t, at random – but it suits her, and the quiet tone of the story she’s in, very well.

The Dragon's Path (The Dagger and the Coin, #1) by Daniel Abraham
Genres: Epic Fantasy

All paths lead to war...

Marcus' hero days are behind him. He knows too well that even the smallest war still means somebody's death. When his men are impressed into a doomed army, staying out of a battle he wants no part of requires some unorthodox steps.

Cithrin is an orphan, ward of a banking house. Her job is to smuggle a nation's wealth across a war zone, hiding the gold from both sides. She knows the secret life of commerce like a second language, but the strategies of trade will not defend her from swords.

Geder, sole scion of a noble house, has more interest in philosophy than in swordplay. A poor excuse for a soldier, he is a pawn in these games. No one can predict what he will become.

Falling pebbles can start a landslide. A spat between the Free Cities and the Severed Throne is spiraling out of control. A new player rises from the depths of history, fanning the flames that will sweep the entire region onto The Dragon's Path-the path to war.

The priests of the spider-goddess have a truly incredible power – the ability to hear whether a person is telling the truth, or lying.

Think about that for a sec. Think about how utterly world-changing that would be – having people who could tell every time a politician or lawyer or whoever lied. Think about what it would mean for the justice system! It would change everything.

…Unless it’s not that they can tell truth from lies. Unless they only think they can tell truth from lies. And what they’re actually doing is hearing whether a person believes what they’re saying.

That would still be world-changing. But in a very, very bad way.

In Veritas by C.J. Lavigne

"Things that are and are not, she thinks, and the dog is a snake."

In this fantastic and fantastical debut, C.J. Lavigne concocts a wondrous realm overlaying a city that brims with civic workers and pigeons. Led by her synesthesia, Verity Richards discovers a hidden world inside an old Ottawa theatre. Within the timeworn walls live people who should not exist--people whose very survival is threatened by science, technology, and natural law. Verity must submerge herself in this impossible reality to help save the last traces of their broken community. Her guides: a magician, his shadow-dog, a dying angel, and a knife-edged woman who is more than half ghost.

With great empathy and imagination, In Veritas explores the nature of truth and the complexities of human communication.

Verity, on the other hand, really can tell whether or not something is true or real. Her magical ability manifests as an extreme case of synesthesia – meaning that sensory input is translated in her brain as coming via another sense, ie things she hears have tastes, things she touches have sounds, words have colours, and so on. It makes life understandably difficult for her. But when it comes to magic, it allows her to perceive things as they truly are – even when those truths don’t make sense to her. What’s especially interesting is that, as Verity and her companions discover experiment with her abilities, they realise that she can sometimes tell if a statement is true or not – even if the speaker doesn’t know whether what they’re saying is true.

It’s a very, very unique take on ‘the Sight’, and I love that the concept of being able to see the supernatural has here been mixed up with synesthesia – not just sight but every sense, and all of them with their wires crossed. It’s also beautifully written, as an aside!

The Imaginary Corpse by Tyler Hayes
Representation: PTSD + trauma, extremely minor M/M and F/F

A dinosaur detective in the land of unwanted ideas battles trauma, anxiety, and the first serial killer of imaginary friends.

Most ideas fade away when we're done with them. Some we love enough to become Real. But what about the ones we love, and walk away from? Tippy the triceratops was once a little girl's imaginary friend, a dinosaur detective who could help her make sense of the world. But when her father died, Tippy fell into the Stillreal, the underbelly of the Imagination, where discarded ideas go when they're too Real to disappear. Now, he passes time doing detective work for other unwanted ideas - until Tippy runs into The Man in the Coat, a nightmare monster who can do the impossible: kill an idea permanently. Now Tippy must overcome his own trauma and solve the case, before there's nothing left but imaginary corpses.

The StillReal is where all the invisible friends kids grew out of or characters from stories and scripts that never got written hang out, so there’s plenty of people around with all kinds of powers. But one of the most interesting – and, in my unbiased opinion, also the cutest – is the main character Tippy’s ‘detective stuff’. Tippy is an ex-imaginary friend who was dreamed up as a detective – despite also being a yellow triceratops plushie – and the child who brought him into being bestowed upon him the ability to magically detect clues. This doesn’t mean his magic solves the case for him – it just draws his attention to pieces of the puzzle. Most of us might miss a fingerprint or the like if we weren’t looking closely, but Tippy’s Detective Stuff always lets him know if there’s something present relevant to the mystery.

I love this because it sounds exactly like the kind of thing a small child would dream up, and because it’s limited enough that Tippy still has to do plenty of work to piece the answers together – in other words, it still leaves plenty of room for plot.

An Accident of Stars (Manifold Worlds, #1) by Foz Meadows
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Portal Fantasy
Representation: Brown asexual aromantic MC, sapphic MC, queernorm world, group marriage, F/F

Book I of the Manifold Worlds from Hugo-nominated author Foz Meadows.

When Saffron Coulter stumbles through a hole in reality, she finds herself trapped in Kena, a magical realm on the brink of civil war.

There, her fate becomes intertwined with that of three very different women: Zech, the fast-thinking acolyte of a cunning, powerful exile; Viya, the spoiled, runaway consort of the empire-building ruler, Vex Leoden; and Gwen, an Earth-born worldwalker whose greatest regret is putting Leoden on the throne. But Leoden has allies, too, chief among them the Vex'Mara Kadeja, a dangerous ex-priestess who shares his dreams of conquest.

Pursued by Leoden and aided by the Shavaktiin, a secretive order of storytellers and mystics, the rebels flee to Veksh, a neighboring matriarchy ruled by the fearsome Council of Queens. Saffron is out of her world and out of her depth, but the further she travels, the more she finds herself bound to her friends with ties of blood and magic.

Can one girl - an accidental worldwalker - really be the key to saving Kena? Or will she just die trying?

There are a few kinds of magic in the world Saffron finds herself in, but one is the jahudemet, which, among other things, allows those with a strong enough gift to make portals – which can move you around your own world, or open to another world entirely. Even without using a portal, those gifted with the jahudemet seem to be able to psychically look at/search for/watch over others who are far away – although this is a ‘seeing’ that is purely external; they can’t read minds or anything like that, just see where a person is and what they’re doing. As a magical ability, the applications are pretty awe-inspiring.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy

Fourteen-year-old Mona isn’t like the wizards charged with defending the city. She can’t control lightning or speak to water. Her familiar is a sourdough starter and her magic only works on bread. She has a comfortable life in her aunt’s bakery making gingerbread men dance.

But Mona’s life is turned upside down when she finds a dead body on the bakery floor. An assassin is stalking the streets of Mona’s city, preying on magic folk, and it appears that Mona is his next target. And in an embattled city suddenly bereft of wizards, the assassin may be the least of Mona’s worries…

Don’t be fooled by the cover and the age of the protagonist – this is very much a book with plenty for adult readers to sink their teeth into. In this world, there are many people with small magics, some of which are almost useless, and most of which are harmless. There’s quite a few cool ones featured, but obviously the one that scores this book a spot on my list is the MC’s ability to bring baked goods to life. Or, well – animate them, anyway; her gingerbread men are not AIs in cookie-form (thank goodness), but they can walk about and dance if she asks them to.

Really her magic is good for a fair bit more than making gingerbread men dance – it might not sound impressive, but I’m willing to bet many bakers would go to dramatic lengths for the power to always have their bread rise perfectly, and for nothing to ever burn! Super practical, especially for someone who works in a bakery.

And then, obviously, over the course of the book we get to see what happens when you apply a little creative thinking to having power over all baked goods… And if you’re not impressed by never-burning-scones, well. You’ll definitely be impressed by the last page!

The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson
Genres: Historical Fantasy
Representation: Cast of colour, Gay MC

New from the award-winning author of Alif the Unseen and writer of the Ms. Marvel series, G. Willow Wilson.

Set in 1491 during the reign of the last sultanate in the Iberian peninsula, The Bird King is the story of Fatima, the only remaining Circassian concubine to the sultan, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker.

Hassan has a secret--he can draw maps of places he's never seen and bend the shape of reality. When representatives of the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrive to negotiate the sultan's surrender, Fatima befriends one of the women, not realizing that she will see Hassan's gift as sorcery and a threat to Christian Spanish rule. With their freedoms at stake, what will Fatima risk to save Hassan and escape the palace walls?

As Fatima and Hassan traverse Spain with the help of a clever jinn to find safety, The Bird King asks us to consider what love is and the price of freedom at a time when the West and the Muslim world were not yet separate.

Hassan can create new places, or new routes between places – by drawing them on a map where they weren’t before! His ability is limited – he couldn’t create a whole new country, for example – but it’s extremely useful for hasty escapes and avoiding enemies, so long as he has some paper and ink to sketch a quick map with!

And escapes and avoiding enemies are very good skills indeed when you’re on the run…

The Girl from Everywhere (The Girl from Everywhere, #1) by Heidi Heilig
Genres: Historical Fantasy
Representation: Biracial MC, brown love interest

Nix has spent her entire life aboard her father’s ship, sailing across the centuries, across the world, across myth and imagination.

As long as her father has a map for it, he can sail to any time, any place, real or imagined: nineteenth-century China, the land from One Thousand and One Nights, a mythic version of Africa. Along the way they have found crewmates and friends, and even a disarming thief who could come to mean much more to Nix.
But the end to it all looms closer every day.

Her father is obsessed with obtaining the one map, 1868 Honolulu, that could take him back to his lost love, Nix’s mother. Even though getting it—and going there—could erase Nix’s very existence.

For the first time, Nix is entering unknown waters.

She could find herself, find her family, find her own fantastical ability, her own epic love.

Or she could disappear.

Another magical ability tied to maps! Nix’s father can sail his ship anywhere – anywhere he has a map of – and anywhen – to the year it was drawn. Which is already ridiculously cool, but if you take a pause to think about the long, long tradition humans have of drawing maps of imaginary places? Fictitious islands, even non-existent continents? All those ‘here be dragons’? Yeah – Nix’s dad can sail to any of them. I think that’s even more impressive than the time-travel aspect, honestly – you’re travelling to places that don’t exist!!!

How does it work? Who knows, it’s magic. Although it does seem to be a skill that can be taught, although Nix’s dad keeps making excuses as to why he can’t teach her yet…

And here endeth the list! Don’t forget to check out last year’s list of magical abilities, or my posts on unique magic systems (this year’s here, last year’s here)! And if you found any new books you want to check out from one of my posts, let me know!

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