For last year’s Wyrd & Wonder, I made a post about some of my favourite magic systems, and it seemed only natural to make a sequel post for this year’s W&W!
(Also, for the record, I really wanted to include Dawnhounds by Sascha Stronarch, but it’s just become unavailable – it was self-published, and now it has a trad-publishing deal, so it’ll be back hopefully this year, but until then…better not to torture you with what you can’t have, right?)
Now, behold – ten unironically cool magic systems!
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: M/M or mlm, queernorm world
The city of Astreiant has gone crazy with enthusiasm for a new play, The Drowned Island, a lurid farrago of melodrama and innuendo. Pointsman Nicolas Rathe is not amused, however, at a real dead body on stage and must investigate. A string of murders follow, perhaps related to the politically important masque that is to play on that same stage. Rathe must once again recruit the help of his soldier lover, Philip Eslingen, whose knowledge of actors and the stage, and of the depths of human perversity and violence, blends well with Rathe's own hard-won experience with human greed and magical mayhem.
Their task is complicated by the season, for it is the time of year when the spirits of the dead haunt the city and influence everyone, and also by the change in their relationship when the loss of Philip's job forces him to move in with Nicolas.
Mystery, political intrigue, floral magic, astrology, and romance--both theatrical and personal-- combine to make this a compelling read.
Point of Dreams is not the first book in the Astreiant series, and I do recommend you read the others first just because they’re so good – even though I think Point of Dreams probably does work okay as a standalone if you insist upon it. Anyway, the magic system of interest to us in this book is – wait for it – flower arranging. No, I’m not kidding; the whole city’s gone mad for flower-magic, a fad set off by a recent and popular play, and now everyone and their uncle are selling copies of the ‘genuine’ grimoire. Of course, it’s all a load of nonsense…until Rathe and his partner Eslingen realise someone is murdering people using bouquets.
The idea of plants being used in magic is pretty traditional, but this is the only story I know where said plants go in a vase instead of a potion!
Representation: Indian cast, Indigenous American love interest
Magical, tantalizing, and sensual, The Mistress of Spices is the story of Tilo, a young woman born in another time, in a faraway place, who is trained in the ancient art of spices and ordained as a mistress charged with special powers.
Once fully initiated in a rite of fire, the now immortal Tilo--in the gnarled and arthritic body of an old woman--travels through time to Oakland, California, where she opens a shop from which she administers spices as curatives to her customers.
An unexpected romance with a handsome stranger eventually forces her to choose between the supernatural life of an immortal and the vicissitudes of modern life.
Spellbinding and hypnotizing, The Mistress of Spices is a tale of joy and sorrow and one special woman's magical powers.
The Mistress of Spices is a standalone novel about an Indian woman who is one of a long legacy of magic-makers – who as you might have guessed, use spices to perform magic. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the spices are magic, and Tilo, the Mistress of the title, facilitates the spices getting where they need to go.
Because the spices are alive, here. They have their own desires, and they speak to – and are possessive of – their Mistresses. (Speak in words, at that.) Each and every spice, not just the ones from India, have their own special properties, which can be magnified by harvesting them in a particular way and so on. Most if not all of those properties seem drawn from Indian mythology and folklore, or inspired by it, which adds another beautiful layer to it all.
This is a very quiet magic system; although it has its cinematic moments, its purpose is primarily to be unobtrusive. And there’s just something really appealing to me about that, about this quiet, subtle force moving through kitchens and other primarily-feminine spaces and changing things through food, which again, is seen as a feminine thing, and is therefore overlooked so often.
And, you know, as someone who grew up mostly in Ireland and England, just the concept of spices all by themselves is pretty magical to me!
Genres: Epic Fantasy
Representation: Brown MCs, mental illness
Seven hundred years ago, a Black Widow witch saw an ancient prophecy come to life in her web of dreams and visions.
Now the Dark Kingdom readies itself for the arrival of its Queen, a Witch who will wield more power than even the High Lord of Hell himself. But she is still young, still open to influence--and corruption.
Whoever controls the Queen controls the darkness. Three men--sworn enemies--know this. And they know the power that hides behind the blue eyes of an innocent young girl. And so begins a ruthless game of politics and intrigue, magic and betrayal, where the weapons are hate and love--and the prize could be terrible beyond imagining...
In the world of the Black Jewels, magic is incredibly important, but it manifests in a unique way; a person’s magical strength is housed within Jewels, crystals of mysterious origin which appear at a child’s Birthright Ceremony. The Jewel is a reflection of a person’s inner power, and also a reservoir of that power; drain your Jewel and it will shatter, leaving you incapable of more than very basic charms. The Jewels come in a range of colours; the darker the Jewel, the more power it contains and symbolises. Among other things, this means that everyone is generally aware of the respective magical strengths of those around them, because those who have Jewels pretty much always wear them; it’s a little bit status symbol, a little bit courtesy, and, with the darker Jewels, a quiet warning. You might pick a fight with someone who has a White or Rose Jewel, but you’d have to be suicidal to piss off someone wearing the Red or Gray. At the same time, those with darker Jewels may choose to deliberately hide them, if they’re in a situation where they don’t want to intimidate people or want to be underestimated.
And of course, the Jewel you receive at your Birthright Ceremony isn’t the only one you ever get. At the Offering, which occurs at adulthood, a person receives their adult Jewels – which might be the same colour as your Birthright Jewels…but might not. The most a person can grow is three ranks darker than their Birthright Jewel, but there are pretty long steps between the darker Jewels – meaning that growing three ranks is easier with a lighter Birthright Jewel than it is with a darker one.
I’ve seen a few stories where a person’s magic is visually symbolised on their body – usually something related to their eyes or eye colour – but the Black Jewels series is the only one I know where you can wear your magic as jewelry!
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Cast of colour, oppressed minorities, bi/pansexual cast, secondary asexual character, secondary F/F relationship, polyamory
Ziaparr: a city being rebuilt after years of mechanized and magical warfare, the capital of a ravaged nation on the verge of renewal and self-rule. But unrest foments as undercaste cycle gangs raid supply trucks, agitate the populace and vandalize the city. A revolution is brewing in the slums and shantytowns against the occupying government, led by a voice on the radio, connected through forbidden magic.
Wenthi Tungét, a talented cycle rider and a loyal officer in the city patrol, is assigned to infiltrate the cycle gangs. For his mission against the insurgents, Wenthi must use their magic, connecting his mind to Nália, a recently captured rebel, using her knowledge to find his way into the heart of the rebellion.
Wenthi's skill on a cycle makes him valuable to the resistance cell he joins, but he discovers that the magic enhances with speed. Every ride intensifies his connection, drawing him closer to the gang he must betray, and strengthens Nália's presence as she haunts his mind.
Wenthi is torn between justice and duty, and the wrong choice will light a spark in a city on the verge of combustion.
Speed is magic in The Velocity of Revolution – a magic that only reached its full potential when humans invented the engine, since no pre-Industrial person could move as fast as a motorbike. It’s an incredibly unique concept, given that in most stories, we see magic and modern technology in opposition. Here, they interlock in really clever ways. Sure, you need to ingest a special mushroom to kickstart things – but it’s the speed that powers the most mindblowing magics, and the faster you go, the greater it gets.
I haven’t seen anything like it anywhere else. The Fast and the Furious has nothing on this, okay?
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Indigenous-American coded cast
Winner of the 2014 Monica Hughes Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy, from the author of Plain Kate.
At the very edge of the world live the Shadowed People. And with them live the dead.There, in the village of Westmost, Otter is born to power. She is the proud daughter of Willow, the greatest binder of the dead in generations. It will be Otter’s job someday to tie the knots of the ward, the only thing that keeps the living safe.
Kestrel is training to be a ranger, one of the brave women who venture into the forest to gather whatever the Shadowed People can’t live without and to fight off whatever dark threat might slip through the ward’s defenses.
And Cricket wants to be a storyteller -- already he shows the knack, the ear -- and already he knows dangerous secrets.
But something is very wrong at the edge of the world. Willow’s power seems to be turning inside out. The ward is in danger of falling. And lurking in the shadows, hungry, is a White Hand, the most dangerous of the dead, whose very touch means madness, and worse.
Suspenseful, eerie, and beautifully imagined.
Did you like cat’s cradle when you were younger? If you did, maybe you could be a binder in the world of Sorrow’s Knot, where the configurations of cord between your fingers can mean the difference between life and death. For one thing, those knots and string-patterns are the only protection Otter’s people have from the monstrous spirits that plague them; they’re also necessary to make sure the dead stay dead.
I just love the imagery of a binder’s hands flicking cord back and forth and driving off monsters with what, in our world, is a children’s game!
Since she was a baby, Aza Ray Boyle has suffered from a mysterious lung disease that makes it ever harder for her to breathe, to speak—to live. So when Aza catches a glimpse of a ship in the sky, her family chalks it up to a cruel side effect of her medication. But Aza doesn’t think this is a hallucination. She can hear someone on the ship calling her name.
Only her best friend, Jason, listens. Jason, who’s always been there. Jason, for whom she might have more-than-friendly feelings. But before Aza can consider that thrilling idea, something goes terribly wrong. Aza is lost to our world—and found by another. Magonia.
Above the clouds, in a land of trading ships, Aza is not the weak and dying thing she was. In Magonia, she can breathe for the first time. Better, she has immense power—but as she navigates her new life, she discovers that war between Magonia and Earth is coming. In Aza’s hands lies the fate of the whole of humanity—including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?
In Magonia, a realm that exists above the clouds but is invisible to us humans, magic is accomplished through song. Although beautifully done in this duology, I have seen song-magic elsewhere. What I haven’t seen is song-magic that requires you to have a live bird singing a duet with you – from inside your lung. These birds are called canwrs and have a symbiotic relationship with Magonians – Magonians even have a little door in their chests for their canwr (each person is bound to one specific bird) to fly in and out of! And not one created by surgery, either – Magonians are just born like that.
It’s so weird, folx – but it’s also pretty awesome.
Genres: Epic Fantasy
Representation: F/F or wlw
The emperor's reign has lasted for decades, his mastery of bone shard magic powering the animal-like constructs that maintain law and order. But now his rule is failing, and revolution is sweeping across the Empire's many islands.
Lin is the emperor's daughter and spends her days trapped in a palace of locked doors and dark secrets. When her father refuses to recognise her as heir to the throne, she vows to prove her worth by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic.
Yet such power carries a great cost, and when the revolution reaches the gates of the palace, Lin must decide how far she is willing to go to claim her birthright - and save her people.
The magic in the world of Bone Shard is very similar to computer code – symbols written to ‘spell out’ the details of what is wanted, describing every possible detail in commands and sub-commands. These are written on bone – human bone – and then draw power from the poor person the bit of bone came from (the bone harvest is mandatory, and the commands don’t work if the person whose bone it is has died). The bone shards then go into constructs and animate them to fulfil the commands on the shard. So as far as I, an absolutely not-coder, am concerned – it’s all magic algorithms!
Genres: Epic Fantasy
Representation: Dyslexic MC
A highly original and engaging debut set in a fantasy world where language holds extraordinary power, perfect for fans of Robin Hobb and Tad Williams.
Nicodemus Weal is a cacographer, unable to reproduce even simple magical texts without 'misspelling' – a mistake which can have deadly consequences. He was supposed to be the Halcyon, a magic-user of unsurpassed power, destined to save the world; instead he is restricted to menial tasks, and mocked for his failure to live up to the prophecy.
But not everyone interprets prophecy in the same way. There are some factions who believe a cacographer such as Nicodemus could hold great power – power that might be used as easily for evil as for good. And when two of the wizards closest to Nicodemus are found dead, it becomes clear that some of those factions will stop at nothing to find the apprentice and bend him to their will…
In some ways, the magic of Spellwright is also like computer code – in that there are different magical languages for different kinds of spells, kind of like different coding languages. (Well, that’s what they reminded me of, anyway.) Also as in Bone Shard, spells are basically a set of very specific instructions that create or command an effect. But here, magic is literally text – lines of glowing text in different colours for the different languages! It makes for beautiful visuals in your mind, I promise.
Instead of esoteric symbols, spells are constructed out of words and sentences; early on in the book, one mage recognises another because he recognises the ‘writing style’ of her spellwork. I just adore that!
The strangest thing is probably the fact that spellwrights create the letters of whichever magical language they’re using…in their muscles. It seems to be partly a physical, not just metaphysical, process to work a spellwright’s magic.
(And, you know. There’s the whole pun of a mage who uses word magic being called a spellwright. That still makes me grin years after first reading it!)
Genres: High Fantasy
Representation: Cast of colour, MC from an oppressed minority
A nobleman’s daughter with magic in her blood. An empire built on the dreams of enslaved gods. Empire of Sand is Tasha Suri’s captivating, Mughal India-inspired debut fantasy.
The Amrithi are outcasts; nomads descended of desert spirits, they are coveted and persecuted throughout the Empire for the power in their blood. Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an exiled Amrithi mother she can barely remember, but whose face and magic she has inherited.
When Mehr’s power comes to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, she must use every ounce of will, subtlety, and power she possesses to resist their cruel agenda.
Should she fail, the gods themselves may awaken seeking vengeance…
Empire of Sand is a lush, dazzling fantasy novel perfect for readers of City of Brass and The Wrath & the Dawn.
In the Empire of Sand, the Amrithi are a persecuted minority with intricate traditions. Their rites take the form of dances – and although all Amrithi perform the rites, a very few have the gift of speaking to the world through dance, and have it answer. Specifically, their dancing shapes the dreams of the sleeping gods – whose dreams are the world.
Meaning that their dancing manipulates reality.
I’ve very rarely seen magic systems that incorporate movement beyond how you wave your wand, and I’ve definitely never seen dance-as-magic before. It’s really beautiful, and the way in which it’s woven into both the story and the empire’s history is elegant and brilliant.
Genres: Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: MC of colour, queernorm world, minor nonbinary characters
A legendary serial killer stalks the streets of a fantastical city in The Helm of Midnight, the stunning first novel in a new trilogy from acclaimed author Marina Lostetter.In a daring and deadly heist, thieves have made away with an artifact of terrible power--the death mask of Louis Charbon. Made by a master craftsman, it is imbued with the spirit of a monster from history, a serial murderer who terrorized the city with a series of gruesome murders.
Now Charbon is loose once more, killing from beyond the grave. But these murders are different from before, not simply random but the work of a deliberate mind probing for answers to a sinister question.
It is up to Krona Hirvath and her fellow Regulators to enter the mind of madness to stop this insatiable killer while facing the terrible truths left in his wake.
There’s quite a bit of magic to choose from in Helm of Midnight, but my absolute favourite has to be the magic of masks. See, a specially trained craftsperson can create a mask that is imbued with the skill of a particular individual – the mask itself can look like anything; the ones we encounter in the book are often beautiful. But the whole concept of the masks is just amazing to me! This way, society doesn’t have to lose the skills of gifted individuals when they die – they can be preserved and used by anyone who wears their mask. The police force, for example, has one which preserves the skill of a woman who was a genius at reading body language.
But it’s not just the skill that gets preserved. Varying amounts of the person’s personality are captured in the mask, too; meaning that anyone who uses a mask has to ‘master’ that personality-remnant before being able to make use of the preserved skill. Masks are ranked by how hard they are to control – how likely they are to instead control the wearer – and the higher ranks should definitely be left to the experts.