phoenix art credit Sujono Sujono
For my third Wyrd & Wonder entry, I wanted to showcase some of the coolest magic systems I’ve come across!
Magic systems tend to be divided into roughly two camps: Hard and Soft. Hard systems are almost scientific in their rules and how they work; a good example is the one in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, where the magic taught at ‘wizard university’ has very strict rules indeed. Even the magic in Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, though superficially Very Mysterious, is determined by grammar and by energy cost.
Soft magic systems, on the other hand, are what I consider Real Magic – mysterious, hard to pin down, inexplicable in a way that evokes wonder. Soft magic feels actually magical, whereas Hard magic is just…science.
Not that science can’t be awe-inspiring. Hm. Maybe it would be better to say that it’s like science the way it’s taught in high school – magic with all the magic stripped out of it.
…I might be a tiny bit biased in my analysis. Tiny bit.
A critical difference between the two, by the way, is how much of the system gets explained to the audience. The magic in Unnatural Magic by C. M. Waggoner is reminiscent of math or computer code – we know there are rules. But because those rules of it aren’t all laid out for the reader, the magic doesn’t have the feeling of a stage magician’s trick explained. It stays marvelous.
Anyway! So here are some of my faves, and no surprise, they’re all Soft systems!
In Merciful Crow (and presumably the sequel, though it hasn’t been released quite yet) everyone has some little bit of magic, but ‘proper’, impressive magic is the domain of witches – which doesn’t sound so odd, until you learn that the number of witches born into each of society’s castes is determined by how many gods that caste had, back before all the gods died. The higher the caste, the fewer gods they had, which has the interesting knock-on effect of meaning that the lower and more down-trodden castes have far more witches than the nobles and royalty.
Every caste – all of which are named after birds – has its own gift, and every member of that caste can use the gift to some degree. But witches, while having the same gift, pack a much, much bigger punch than the rest of the population.
The Crow caste – considered the lowest of the low – has the magic that earns this book a spot on my list: Crow witches can use the gifts of any other caste – if they have the teeth of someone who belonged to that caste. It’s pretty incredible, and adds a very interesting element to the already complicated interactions between Crows and the rest of the kingdom. Plus, it makes for very bad-ass fashion accessories: the chiefs of the travelling Crow flocks wear necklaces made up of the teeth of non-Crows, so they can use any caste-gift as it’s needed.
Another series whose magic system revolves around teeth, the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy is difficult to talk about without giving away spoilers – the full impact and power of the tooth-magic is revealed later in book one, and it’s a pretty big plot point. But the info the reader starts with is that teeth = wishes. Sounds great, right? Well, kinda. The problem is, a single tooth = a very small wish – enough to change the colour of your hair, say, but not much more. And you can’t add a bunch of teeth – or little wishes – together to make a big wish. To get a big wish, you need all the teeth from a person’s mouth – and to get the biggest wish, you need to give all of your own teeth.
That’s already a really cool magic system, but as hinted, the power of the teeth is even greater than the ability to grant wishes…
The Lightbringer series by Brent Weeks features a society built around the magic of colour – and I mean that literally. Drafters are people able to ‘draft’ colour from light – take it into themselves, and then manifest it in a physical form. It’s especially cool because each colour has different properties in its physical form – green is elastic, perfect yellow is unbreakable, etc – as well as manifesting emotionally within the drafter: red ’causes’ passion, blue compels rational thinking, and so on. Drafting also has permanent effects on drafters; the more a person drafts, the more their eyes are stained with whichever colour or colours they draft (few people can draft two colours, three is incredibly rare, and to be able to draft more than that is almost unheard of). When the colour/s eventually overflows the iris, aka ‘breaking the halo’, the drafter goes mad and has to be put down.
Everything in the Seven Satrapies revolves around colour and drafting, from agriculture to fashion to religion. Magic is a vital part of the economy and every aspect of life, and almost as amazing as the system itself is how well-thought-out the ramifications of it are on Weeks’ world.
In the Worldbreaker saga, jistas are mages who draw power from one of the four satellites – Para, Tira, Sina, or Oma. ‘Satellites’ is used here in the astrological sense; Oma and the rest are some kind of strange stars/astrological bodies with unpredictable orbits; although the astrologists can estimate when one will appear in the sky and one will disappear, they’re only ever educated guesses. Each of them cast a different coloured light; Oma’s light is red, Para’s is blue, and so on. Jistas can only draw from a single satellite, and only when their satellite is in ascendance – Para might hang around for a few decades, giving parajistas plenty of power, before vanishing as Tira replaces it – causing the parajistas to lose their magic, and the tirajistas to regain theirs. Each satellite bestows different slightly different abilities – Tira is particularly good for healing – and jistas must learn special litanies in order to channel the power of their satellite.
The trilogy’s plotline revolves around the rise of Oma, which is known to bring chaos and destruction whenever it appears in the skies. Luckily, it doesn’t appear very often – about every two thousand years – but it’s even less predictable in its appearances and disappearances than the other satellites, making it difficult to prepare for its coming. Omajistas are therefore the rarest of jistas – but also, arguably, the most powerful, with one power in particular that is absolutely priceless to the different worlds that clash over the course of the saga.
The law is magic – or is magic the law? – in Three Parts Dead, the first in the Craft Sequence. Drawing power from starlight and trained in an invisible academy in the sky, Craftspeople are very like lawyers in Gladstone’s universe – they negotiate contracts, file lawsuits, and defend and prosecute defendants in trials.
It’s just that those contracts are between gods, the lawsuits regard stolen soul-stuff, and depositions and presenting evidence in trials takes the form of magical battles with opposing counsel.
The Craft isn’t the only form of magic in the series, but it is the only one (if I remember correctly) which is entirely created, fuelled, and practised by humans – other magic systems have humans drawing power from gods they’ve made compacts with or oaths to. It gives the Craft an interesting place in the structure of its world, because the Craft is symbolic of humanity’s independence from the gods – something which is a major theme underlying the whole series.
‘Life is magic’ is the mantra that repeats again and again in Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series. These books are the quintessential urban fantasy, with magic literally created out of/pulled from the urbane – golems built out of trash, sigils painted in graffiti, prophecies writ in the patterns of plastic bags blown in the wind, and rituals wrought out of the patterns of rush-hour. The moment I knew this series was something special was the scene, early in the first book, when the eponymous Matthew Swift crafts a protection spell by swiping his travel card and standing on one side of the turnstile – turning the terms and conditions on his card into a protection spell from the monster stuck on the other side. Griffin does that over and over, taking the mundane and turning it into magic, from night buses to pigeons to phone lines to the Dragon of London, and it’s a ridiculously incredible thing to watch. Nobody does urban fantasy like the Matthew Swift series, because only these books literally build fantasy out of the urban.
Another series where life and magic are inextricably intertwined, the Towers trilogy is set in a post-apocalyptic world where, somehow, everyone has magic. Just a little bit, enough to press into coins and use as currency – unless you’re one of the rich and privileged, living in towers floating above the city of ruins below. The towers are powered by the magic – the life force – of their inhabitants, and it makes them luxurious havens, a completely different world to that of the people living on the ground.
The trilogy plays with the ideas of life and death as magical forces – Xhea, the main character, is a freak oddity, the only person anyone’s ever heard of with no magic at all; whereas Shai is a Radiant, someone born with too much magic – which means too much life. That manifests in the form of horrific cancers, produced by that excess life-energy – life-energy that is still present even when Shai is a ghost. Like I said, plenty of interplay between life and death, and where the line between them lies, and when something or someone moves between one and the other. Really cool, and the way it’s utilised in Sumner-Smith’s world is just brilliant.
In the Creature Court series, power comes from the sky – as do terrible monsters that attack the cities below every night. But the cities have protectors – Courts made up of men and women who have been touched by animor, a strange and feral energy that turns them into cubs, Lords and Kings, giving them the power to fight the sky. The more animor a person has, the more powerful they are – grow powerful enough, and you become a King. Grow stronger than the other Kings in the court, and you become Power and Majesty, the King of Kings. Animor is a mysterious thing; it’s unclear where it comes from or even how it works, but those who wield it become more feral than ‘normal’ people, even turning into animals when they battle. (One detail I love is that almost no one turns into one animal – the transformation is affected by body weight, so the character who turns into cats turns into many cats at once, since a human’s body weight = at least a dozen cats, right?) Animor also creates prophets and guardians, who have their own abilities but can’t transform or fight the sky directly.
The secrets of animor do come out eventually, by the end of the trilogy…and damn, it’s one incredible ride. Even without the really cool magic system, this is one of my favourite trilogies of all time!
The Watergivers trilogy is set in a desert land, where all life depends on the stormlords – magic-users who can gather clouds and summon rain. They come in levels of strength – stormlords, and the lesser rainlords, who can’t create storms of their own but can still manipulate water. In the desert setting, water is everything – currency, religion, and an obviously vital resource; one of a rainlord’s responsibilities is drawing the water from dead bodies to make sure not one drop is wasted. Besides being an amazing story, the trilogy plays with this unique magic system in all sorts of ways – I’m always trying to push these books into people’s hands!
In the world of the Long Price quartet, magic is – kind of – poetry. In fact, mages are given the title of Poets once they graduate from a very intense schooling – and the magic they perform? Consists of taking concepts and manifesting them into living, sentient forms, which the Poets then control totally. The manifestation is done by defining the concept, which is difficult enough – but since entire economies grow up around the concepts so embodied, successor Poets have to try and take hold of that concept so it doesn’t disappear when the first Poet dies. And that’s a problem, because the concept will ‘escape’, or not manifest, if the definition written is too close to a definition that was written before.
If that sounds complicated, it is, but though it’s an integral part of the quartet, the reader doesn’t need to be too concerned with the intricate details (alas – I would have found them pretty cool). Book one revolves around the concept nicknamed Seedless, which has turned the kingdom it exists in into a major exporter of fabrics – since it removes the seeds from cotton, making harvesting and spinning it much, much easier and faster.
The thing is, Seedless – and all the other concepts – hate the Poets and don’t want to be material, living beings at all. The Poets have to fight to hold them, and the concepts do all they can to escape. The series follows the give-and-take between various Poets and the concepts they hold captive, and the fall-out when those conflicts spill over to the rest of humanity.
So! Those are some of my favourite magic systems. Tell me about some of yours!