Last post, I talked about some of my favourite magic systems; this time around, I want to showcase some of my favourite magical/supernatural abilities. The difference? 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.
I guess it’s a fairly thin line separating the two, but that line’s enough to justify two separate posts, and that’s all I need!
(Although now I wish I’d saved the Water Giver trilogy for this post, where it probably fits a little better. Oh well!)
Introduced in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle and featured in the sequel Dreamer trilogy are Dreamers – people who can take things out of their dreams and bring them into the real world. As you might imagine, some of those things are incredibly strange – some beautiful, some terrible, some both – but without question, it makes for one of the most incredible, and potentially dangerous, abilities on this list. After all, would you want to manifest your nightmares?
A secondary character who spends almost no time on the page, and yet is central to the second book of KD Edward’s Tarot Sequence, is Layne – a teenage necromancer. This isn’t your typical necromancy, though; Layne isn’t messing about with corpses or raising the dead, and though he* does draw power from death, he’s not sacrificing babies or neighbourhood cats. His form of necromancy is more properly called immolation magic – practitioners keep themselves infected with different illnesses, and when they need power, they kill the bacteria and harvest power from the deaths of those illnesses. It’s a really unique and clever twist on necromancy, and I for one absolutely adore it!
*Layne is referred to using he/him in Hanged Man, but it’s been revealed that Layne’s pronouns going forward in the series will be they/them.
Orogeny is an ability some people in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy are blessed – or cursed – with; the power to sense, manipulate, and trigger energy – especially or primarily seismic energy. Because individuals who can create earthquakes even as infants are obviously very dangerous individuals, most people hate them; orogenes are victims of terrible prejudice and abuse, with people even suspected of having orogeny being beaten to death, especially in more rural areas. Whereas the Fulcrum, a kind of government body, raises, trains, and even breeds orogenes – because of course, although they might be dangerous, orogenes are also incredibly useful, especially in the world of the Stillness, where climatic cataclysms are a constant threat.
The full scope of orogeny is explored in fantastic detail over the course of the trilogy, and I don’t want to ruin it for new readers by going into spoiler territory. So I’ll just say that it’s ridiculously cool, and very definitely one of my favourite superpowers!
Heart of the Circle is special not so much for the magical ability possessed by the main character – empathy – so much as how it’s utilised. Landsman delves into the potential uses of being able to not just read, but manipulate the emotions of others – and it’s pretty damn incredible. Empaths work in marketing and publishing to infuse images and stories with real emotion, walk on the outside of protest marches to keep a look-out for violence before it starts – and are absolutely terrifying in combat. At one point in the book, the main character (an empath himself) reminisces about his time in the military, and one particular training exercise – when twenty or so other magic-users complained of being outnumbered when pit against a single empath and seer. That’s how scary empaths are. It’s really cool to me, because usually empathy is presented as a soft, gentle superpower, and here in Heart of the Circle, it’s the complete opposite.
The cassandra sangue of the Others series are not-quite-human, but aren’t Others (supernatural creatures like animal shapeshifters, vampires, and elementals) either. Their in-between state is explored later in the Others series, when it’s speculated that they might have evolved as mediators between humans and others (a concept I absolutely adore), but their primary power is in their skin. When a blood prophet’s skin is cut, she (cassandra sangue are always female) sees visions. Between that and their naive, naturally sweet natures (a generalisation, but a valid one) they’re inevitably taken advantage of and misused by those who want to profit from their prophecies. The series starts when one blood prophet escapes the compound she was born and raised in, and she and the found-family that forms around her explore the full extent – and danger – of her ability, step by step and book by book. The ramifications are enormous, and make for really interesting reading.
The God Eaters is one of my favourite books of all time, and one so few people seem to have heard of. Happily, it was just featured on Tor.com in a post by TJ Klune just this past week. It’s an incredible queer fantasy, not least because of its fantastic characters. One of which is Kieran, a Native American with a magical gift I’ve never seen before (or since) – he can will people to die. It’s a power that wouldn’t work in the hands of a lesser writer – Kieran would either be too strong to be interesting (how much fun do you have with super-superpowered characters, who are never in danger and can brush off any obstacle?) or for hand-wavey reasons wouldn’t be using his gift when it might interfere with the plot. But Hajicek makes it work, and work brilliantly, and I love, love, love the secret behind the source of that power, when it’s eventually revealed. It’s a unique magical power utilised expertly by a master storyteller, and you absolutely need to check it out.
(You can grab an e-copy over at Lulu.com – no affiliate link, I just want everyone to be able to read this book!)
Margerit, a young woman who receives an unexpected inheritance that will alter the course of her life, is special even before she becomes an heiress – she can see magic.
Of course, that’s not what she, or anyone else calls it – in Jones’ regency setting, what I call magic is considered the manifestations of saints and angels, something that’s only lightly questioned later in the series by less religious characters. But the point remains that Margerit sees beautiful colours and glowing lights during rituals – and can use that sight to tell when a ritual has gone wrong. She even utilises her ability to build entirely new rituals, ones with real and powerful effects. It’s a wonderful power, and it’s just as wonderful to read about as Margerit goes from considering it a small and unimportant thing, to embracing her power and making it the focus of her life.
In Reverie, people’s dreams and fantasies keep manifesting into reality – sweeping up everyone nearby into the dreamer’s story. A rare few are immune, able to remember who they are even when caught in someone else’s ‘reverie’ – said dreams – and who can help the plot of the dream reach its conclusion without anyone getting hurt. This is made easier by the fact that everyone who can stay awake through a reverie seems to get superpowers – like super-strength – but it’s the staying-awake-and-aware ability that earns Reverie a spot on this list.
The reveries themselves are a really cool concept, as is the idea of people whose magic is being immune to magic – at least this one specific kind of magic, anyway!
The clue’s in the name: inklings, as they’re known, are people who can manipulate holy ink. The most common way they do this is by drawing on themselves – or someone else – and making the message or picture transfer from their skin to someone else’s. The church ’employs’ (a better word might be ‘enslaves’) inklings to pass on divine messages to parishioners – the inkling considers the message, draws an image that embodies that message, and then sends it from their own skin to the intended recipient, who will bear it as a permanent tattoo for the rest of their lives.
The main characters, Celia and Anya, find a new way to utilise their power – one that gives them a way out of the church’s oppression and a way in to a new and brilliant new life. I’m not going to tell you what it is, because spoilers, but it’s fabulously clever. And the inklings’ power definitely counts as a unique one!
So those are some of my faves – what about yours? What are some of the coolest magical abilities you’ve read about? And what power, if you could pick, would you choose for yourself?
And don’t forget to check out my sequel post, (Some More Of) The Coolest Magical Abilities in Fiction!