Every year that I’ve taken part in Wyrd & Wonder, I’ve made lists of cool magic systems and cool magical abilities – and I’m continuing the tradition in 2022!
I define a magic system as a practice that lets you do many things – whereas a magical ability, however versatile, fundamentally lets you do one thing.
Now that that’s settled – let me show you some of my favourite magic systems!
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bisexual MC
All martyrdoms are difficult.
Elfreda Raughn will avoid pregnancy if it kills her, and one way or another, it will kill her. Though she’s able to stomach her gruesome day-to-day duties, the reality of preserving the Sisterhood of Aytrium’s magical bloodline horrifies her. She wants out, whatever the cost.
So when a shadowy cabal approaches Elfreda with an offer of escape, she leaps at the opportunity. As their spy, she gains access to the highest reaches of the Sisterhood, and enters a glittering world of opulent parties, subtle deceptions, and unexpected bloodshed.
A phantasmagorical indictment of hereditary power, Star Eater takes readers deep into a perilous and uncanny world where even the most powerful women are forced to choose what sacrifices they will make, so that they might have any choice at all.
In the world of Star Eater, gifted women use a magic called lace for all sorts of things. That’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is where they get the lace: when their store of lace runs low, they…eat bits of their mothers.
You heard me.
These women are put into comas when they reach a certain age, and their daughters cut neat slices of out of their arms or legs or wherever and eat them to power their own lace. It’s definitely the most messed-up source of magic I’ve seen in a while, as is the entire cultural and political system that’s grown up around it. None of which Hall flinches away from.
Cannibal nuns, everyone.
Lesson One of the Scholomance: Learning has never been this deadly.
A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets.
There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere.
El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students.
Novik came up with a simple but ingenious magic system for her Scholomance series: spells are fuelled by mana or malia. Mana is energy and power you make yourself; malia is taken from other living things, including other humans. Using a lot of malia will eventually mess you up, but it’s much, much easier than working up a big dollop of mana.
What I love about this system is that mana is created by effort – which means that you get more mana for doing something difficult that you hate, than doing something you enjoy. If you like exercise, you won’t get as much mana for doing laps as someone who is out of shape and despises running will; this has the knock-on effect of meaning that once you get good enough at your mana-producing task – like crochet or sit-ups or whatever – you have to switch to something new and start all over again. Can you imagine how frustrating that would be?!
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy
meets Buffy the Vampire the Slayer in this original urban fantasy eBook about Geekomancers—humans that derive supernatural powers from pop culture.
Ree Reyes's life was easier when all she had to worry about was scraping together tips from her gig as a barista and comicshop slave to pursue her ambitions as a screenwriter.
When a scruffy-looking guy storms into the shop looking for a comic like his life depends on it, Ree writes it off as just another day in the land of the geeks. Until a gigantic BOOM echoes from the alley a minute later, and Ree follows the rabbit hole down into her town's magical flip-side. Here, astral cowboy hackers fight trolls, rubber-suited werewolves, and elegant Gothic Lolita witches while wielding nostalgia-powered props.
Ree joins Eastwood (aka Scruffy Guy), investigating a mysterious string of teen suicides as she tries to recover from her own drag-your-heart-through-jagged-glass breakup. But as she digs deeper, Ree discovers Eastwood may not be the knight-in-cardboard armor she thought. Will Ree be able to stop the suicides, save Eastwood from himself, and somehow keep her job?
This is probably the magic system I’d most like to learn, since it allows its practitioners to temporarily gain the superpowers, magic, or other uncanny abilities of their favourite characters – either by watching the character’s tv show, reading their comic, however one engages with the media format in question. Geekomancers can also use replica props like Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver as if they were the real thing, so yeah, this is kind of my favourite magic system ever!
From acclaimed bestselling author Laura Anne Gilman comes a unique and enthralling new story of fantasy and adventure, wine and magic, danger and hope....
Once, all power in the Vin Lands was held by the prince-mages, who alone could craft spellwines, and selfishly used them to increase their own wealth and influence. But their abuse of power caused a demigod to break the Vine, shattering the power of the mages. Now, fourteen centuries later, it is the humble Vinearts who hold the secret of crafting spells from wines, the source of magic, and they are prohibited from holding power.
But now rumors come of a new darkness rising in the vineyards. Strange, terrifying creatures, sudden plagues, and mysterious disappearances threaten the land. Only one Vineart senses the danger, and he has only one weapon to use against it: a young slave. His name is Jerzy, and his origins are unknown, even to him. Yet his uncanny sense of the Vinearts' craft offers a hint of greater magics within magics that his Master, the Vineart Malech, must cultivate and grow. But time is running out. If Malech cannot teach his new apprentice the secrets of the spellwines, and if Jerzy cannot master his own untapped powers, the Vin Lands shall surely be destroyed.
In Flesh and Fire, first in a spellbinding new trilogy, Laura Anne Gilman conjures a story as powerful as magic itself, as intoxicating as the finest of wines, and as timeless as the greatest legends ever told.
How about magic via wine??? Each spellwine has its own powers, but all are made by the Vinearts, those who have the special knack required for growing and tending to the magical grapes that make the wines. (Interestingly, all Vinearts are asexual.) Actually using a spellwine correctly is deceptively simple – drink, then command – but it’s all too easy for the inexperienced, untaught, or arrogant to make pretty terrible mistakes. Regardless, it’s a very beautiful, sensual magic system!
Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy
Brimming with romance, betrayal, and enchantment, The Embroidered Book reveals and reimagines a dazzling period of history as you have never seen it before.
‘Power is not something you are given. Power is something you take. When you are a woman, it is a little more difficult, that’s all.’
1768. Charlotte, daughter of the Habsburg Empress, arrives in Naples to marry a man she has never met. Her sister Antoine is sent to France, and in the mirrored corridors of Versailles they rename her Marie Antoinette.
The sisters are alone, but they are not powerless. When they were only children, they discovered a book of spells – spells that work, with dark and unpredictable consequences.
In a time of vicious court politics, of discovery and dizzying change, they use the book to take control of their lives.
But every spell requires a sacrifice. And as love between the sisters turns to rivalry, they will send Europe spiralling into revolution.
At first glance, the magic gradually learned by two royal sisters looks fairly traditional; you need ingredients, symbols, and rituals to cast a spell. We’ve seen that kind of thing before. But these spells also require sacrifices – not bloody ones, but arguably worse: feelings and memories. It’s not hard to see how a magic system like that can twist up a person – one spell required one of the main characters to give up her love for her dog, and how can you keep a relationship with your sister when you keep sacrificing memories of her? It’s a magic system that seems designed to turn its practioners into unfeeling narcissists, and I find that horribly fascinating.
The first book in a new environmental epic fantasy series set in a world where ships kept afloat by magical hearthfires sail an endless grass sea.
On the never-ending, miles-high expanse of prairie grasses known as the Forever Sea, Kindred Greyreach, hearthfire keeper and sailor aboard harvesting vessel The Errant, is just beginning to fit in with the crew of her new ship when she receives devastating news. Her grandmother--The Marchess, legendary captain and hearthfire keeper--has stepped from her vessel and disappeared into the sea.
But the note she leaves Kindred suggests this was not an act of suicide. Something waits in the depths, and the Marchess has set out to find it.
To follow in her grandmother's footsteps, Kindred must embroil herself in conflicts bigger than she could imagine: a water war simmering below the surface of two cultures; the politics of a mythic pirate city floating beyond the edges of safe seas; battles against beasts of the deep, driven to the brink of madness; and the elusive promise of a world below the waves.
Kindred finds that she will sacrifice almost everything--ship, crew, and a life sailing in the sun--to discover the truth of the darkness that waits below the Forever Sea.
Sailing ships on the Forever Sea is even more complicated than sailing on oceans of water – because these ships aren’t powered by the wind, but by bones. The bones of dead captains are arranged in patterns and constructs reminiscent of a cat’s cradle, and each arrangement has a different effect on the ship; go faster, slower, higher, lower, etc.
Oh, and did I mention that these arrangements of bones have to made in a bowl of magic fire??? Because they do. Although most fire-tenders learn the bone constructs by rote, a very rare few can hear or sense something in the flames that tells them what bones – in what pattern – are required. A lot of it seems to be instinct and intuition, though – the fire, alas, does not speak in words.
How and why this works the way it does isn’t explained in the first book, but it’s definitely unusual and interesting enough to merit a spot on my list!
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Second in K. A. Doore's high fantasy adventure series the Chronicles of Ghadid, a determined assassin travels to the heart of the Empire in pursuit of a powerful mark, for fans of Robin Hobb, Sarah J. Maas, and S. A. Chakraborty
Thana has a huge reputation to live up to as daughter of the Serpent, who rules over Ghadid’s secret clan of assassins. Opportunity to prove herself arrives when Thana accepts her first contract on Heru, a dangerous foreign diplomat with the ability to bind a person’s soul under his control.
She may be in over her head, especially when Heru is targeted by a rival sorcerer who sends hordes of the undead to attack them both. When Heru flees, Thana has no choice than to pursue him across the sands to the Empire that intends to capture Ghadid inside its iron grip.
A stranger in a strange city, Thana’s only ally is Mo, a healer who may be too noble for her own good. Meanwhile, otherworldly and political dangers lurk around every corner, and even more sinister plans are uncovered which could lead to worldwide devastation. Can Thana rise to the challenge―even if it means facing off against an ancient evil?
Mentioned in passing in the first book of this trilogy but featured in The Impossible Contract are the immensely important healers of Ghadid – who can manipulate water. That’s already a big deal in a desert-city, but what especially fascinated me is that they can use water to heal – not, as you might guess, by manipulating the water in the human body, but in some kind of exchange; the water evaporates, ‘used up’, as the wound is healed. Not only is that very cool by itself, it’s made even more so by how it affects and is affected by the desert culture around it!
From a brilliant new voice in fantasy comes a band of heroes, a world in peril, and an unforgettable heroine whose unexpected gift of magic awakens an ancient, slumbering evil.
On a fateful night five centuries ago, three made a desperate last stand, sacrificing everything to preserve the only hope of goodness in the beautiful, doomed land of Alasea. Now, on the anniversary of that ominous night, a girl-child ripens into the heritage of lost power. But before she can even comprehend her terrible new gift, the Dark Lord dispatches his winged monsters to capture her and bring him the embryonic magic she embodies.
Fleeing the minions of darkness, Elena is swept toward certain doom-and into the company of unexpected allies. Aided by a one-armed warrior and a strange seer, she forms a band of the hunted and the cursed, the outcasts and the outlaws, to battle the unstoppable forces of evil and rescue a once-glorious empire...
At first glance, the magic system of The Banned and the Cursed series looks odd but simple: those who can wield magic expose their hands to sunlight, which ‘charges’ a rose-shaped design on their palm. As they use up their magic, the rose design becomes paler, until they need to recharge again.
But – spoiler! – Elena’s magic can draw from far more than just sunlight. It turns out there are lots of different kinds of light, and some of them – and how Elena manages to access them – are genuinely mind-blowing. It’s hard to say more without going into real spoiler territory, but I really do love this magic system!
Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy
Red Rising meets The Scorpio Races in this epic fantasy following three phoenix horse riders--skilled at alchemy--who must compete at The Races--the modern spectacle that has replaced warfare within their empire.
Every year since the Ashlords were gifted phoenix horses by their gods, they've raced them. First into battle, then on great hunts, and finally for the pure sport of seeing who rode the fastest. Centuries of blood and fire carved their competition into a more modern spectacle: The Races.
Over the course of a multi-day event, elite riders from clashing cultures vie to be crowned champion. But the modern version of the sport requires more than good riding. Competitors must be skilled at creating and controlling phoenix horses made of ash and alchemy, which are summoned back to life each sunrise with uniquely crafted powers to cover impossible distances and challenges before bursting into flames at sunset. But good alchemy only matters if a rider knows how to defend their phoenix horse at night. Murder is outlawed, but breaking bones and poisoning ashes? That's all legal and encouraged.
In this year's Races, eleven riders will compete, but three of them have more to lose than the rest--a champion's daughter, a scholarship entrant, and a revolutionary's son. Who will attain their own dream of glory? Or will they all flame out in defeat?
When you hear ‘alchemy’ you probably think vaguely of turning lead into gold, or maybe the philosopher’s stone. In Reintgen’s world though, alchemists create…horses.
No, that’s not a typo. For real: alchemists use all kinds of ingredients to create magical horses with different abilities or qualities, phoenix horses which crumble into ash at sundown but can cover incredible distances – and perform supernatural feats – during the day. This is another one where the magic system is very interesting, but so is the way it interacts with the culture around it!
A thrilling debut from ER doctor turned novelist Tom Miller, The Philosopher’s Flight is an epic historical fantasy set in a World-War-I-era America where magic and science have blended into a single extraordinary art. “Like his characters, Tom Miller casts a spell.” (Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club and The Last Bookaneer)
Eighteen-year-old Robert Weekes is a practitioner of empirical philosophy—an arcane, female-dominated branch of science used to summon the wind, shape clouds of smoke, heal the injured, and even fly. Though he dreams of fighting in the Great War as the first male in the elite US Sigilry Corps Rescue and Evacuation Service—a team of flying medics—Robert is resigned to mixing batches of philosophical chemicals and keeping the books for the family business in rural Montana, where his mother, a former soldier and vigilante, aids the locals.
When a deadly accident puts his philosophical abilities to the test, Robert rises to the occasion and wins a scholarship to study at Radcliffe College, an all-women’s school. At Radcliffe, Robert hones his skills and strives to win the respect of his classmates, a host of formidable, unruly women.
Robert falls hard for Danielle Hardin, a disillusioned young war hero turned political radical. However, Danielle’s activism and Robert’s recklessness attract the attention of the same fanatical anti-philosophical group that Robert’s mother fought years before. With their lives in mounting danger, Robert and Danielle band together with a team of unlikely heroes to fight for Robert’s place among the next generation of empirical philosophers—and for philosophy’s very survival against the men who would destroy it.
In the tradition of Lev Grossman and Deborah Harkness, Tom Miller writes with unrivaled imagination, ambition, and humor. The Philosopher’s Flight is both a fantastical reimagining of American history and a beautifully composed coming-of-age tale for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider.
Working magic with sigils and other magical symbols is pretty traditional – but in the world of Philosopher’s Flight, these symbols aren’t being drawn in chalk or written in blood. Instead, they’re carved out of smoke. Or a mix of corn flour and sand that’s shot out of a mechanical regulator – allowing the ‘practical philosopher’, as they’re called, to freaking fly.
And pretty much anything else they please.
Practical philosophy is treated as a science in Miller’s world, but is absolutely what we in this world would call magic. Drawing symbols with strange substances for supernatural results??? Obviously magic. Mysteriously, women are much stronger philosophers than men in this verse – faster fliers, capable of teleporting further, etc – which is something I hope is eventually explained in the books! Either way, it’s a fascinating system that leads into some seriously incredible worldbuilding – you can find my starry-eyed review of book one of the series here!