Ten Ridiculously Cool Magic Systems!

Posted 5th May 2020 by Sia in Blogathons, Lists / 3 Comments

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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!

The Merciful Crow (The Merciful Crow, #1) by Margaret Owen
Genres: Fantasy, YA

A future chieftain.

Fie abides by one rule: look after your own. Her Crow caste of undertakers and mercy-killers takes more abuse than coin, but when they’re called to collect royal dead, she’s hoping they’ll find the payout of a lifetime.

A fugitive prince.

When Crown Prince Jasimir turns out to have faked his death, Fie’s ready to cut her losses—and perhaps his throat. But he offers a wager that she can’t refuse: protect him from a ruthless queen, and he’ll protect the Crows when he reigns.

A too-cunning bodyguard.

Hawk warrior Tavin has always put Jas’s life before his, magically assuming the prince’s appearance and shadowing his every step. But what happens when Tavin begins to want something to call his own?

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.

Daughter of Smoke & Bone (Daughter of Smoke & Bone, #1) by Laini Taylor
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, YA

Around the world, black hand prints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grows dangerously low.
And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real, she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious "errands", she speaks many languages - not all of them human - and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

When beautiful, haunted Akiva fixes fiery eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

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 Black Prism (Lightbringer, #1) by Brent Weeks
Genres: Adult, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy

Guile is the Prism, the most powerful man in the world. He is high priest and emperor, a man whose power, wit, and charm are all that preserves a tenuous peace. Yet Prisms never last, and Guile knows exactly how long he has left to live.

When Guile discovers he has a son, born in a far kingdom after the war that put him in power, he must decide how much he's willing to pay to protect a secret that could tear his world apart.

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.

The Mirror Empire (Worldbreaker Saga, #1) by Kameron Hurley, Richard Anderson
Genres: Adult, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Queer Protagonists

On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations and reshape continents, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past… while a world goes to war with itself.

In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin.

As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her alien Empress.

Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.

In the end, one world will rise – and many will perish.

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.

Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence, #1) by Max Gladstone
Genres: Adult, Fantasy

A god has died, and it’s up to Tara, first-year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart.
Her client is Kos, recently deceased fire god of the city of Alt Coulumb. Without Him, the metropolis’s steam generators will shut down, its trains will cease running, and its four million citizens will riot.

Tara’s job: resurrect Kos before chaos sets in. Her only help: Abelard, a chain-smoking priest of the dead god, who’s having an understandable crisis of faith.

When Tara and Abelard discover that Kos was murdered, they have to make a case in Alt Coulumb’s courts—and their quest for the truth endangers their partnership, their lives, and Alt Coulumb’s slim hope of survival.

Set in a phenomenally built world in which justice is a collective force bestowed on a few, craftsmen fly on lightning bolts, and gargoyles can rule cities, Three Parts Dead introduces readers to an ethical landscape in which the line between right and wrong blurs.

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.

A Madness of Angels (Matthew Swift, #1) by Kate Griffin
Genres: Adult, Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy

Two years after his untimely death, Matthew Swift finds himself breathing once again, lying in bed in his London home.

Except that it's no longer his bed, or his home. And the last time this sorcerer was seen alive, an unknown assailant had gouged a hole so deep in his chest that his death was irrefutable...despite his body never being found.

He doesn't have long to mull over his resurrection, though, or the changes that have been wrought upon him. His only concern now is vengeance. Vengeance upon his monstrous killer and vengeance upon the one who brought him back.

‘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.

Radiant (Towers Trilogy, #1) by Karina Sumner-Smith
Genres: Fantasy, YA

A girl who sees ghosts navigates a world of magical haves and have-nots, in the “ingenious, insightful debut” of a dystopian fantasy epic (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

In the City, magic guarantees a life free from illness, hunger and hardship—unless, of course, you have none. Without even a spark of bright magic, Xhea can't even buy breakfast, let alone tell the City's systems that she exists. But she does have a special gift: an ability to see ghosts and control the tethers that bind them to the living world.

Xhea thought she knew everything about ghosts—until she took possession of Shai, the ghost of a girl who hasn't actually died. Suddenly Xhea finds herself hunted through the Lower City's dangerous streets. Because Shai's body has been stolen, her ghost is running scared, and Xhea is now trapped between two powerful entities that will stop at nothing to regain the girl, dead or alive.

But soon the manhunt for the living ghost is eclipsed by the strange power that Shai's presence brings to life in Xhea: a dark magic that is slowly growing in power. A magic whose very touch brings death…

  In this “captivating start” to the Towers Trilogy, a multiple Nebula nominee invites readers into a dark and dangerous world that is about be changed by two remarkable girls (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

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.

Power and Majesty (Creature Court #1) by Tansy Rayner Roberts
Genres: Adult, Fantasy

“She almost missed the sight of a naked youth falling out of the sky. He was long and lean and muscled … He was also completely off his face.”

A war is being fought in the skies over the city of Aufleur. No one sees the battles. No one knows how close they come to destruction every time the sun sets.

During daylight, all is well, but when nox falls and the sky turns bright, someone has to step up and lead the Creature Court into battle.

Twelve years ago, Garnet kissed Velody and stole her magic. Five years ago, he betrayed Ashiol, and took his powers by force. But now the Creature Court is at a crossroads … they need a Power and Majesty who won’t give up or lose themselves in madness …

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 Last Stormlord (Watergivers, #1) by Glenda Larke
Genres: Adult, Fantasy

Shale is the lowest of the low-an outcast from a poor village in the heart of the desert. In the desert water is life, and currency, and Shale has none. But he has a secret. It's the one thing that keeps him alive and may save all the cities of the Quartern in the days to come. If it doesn't get him killed first...

Terelle is a slave fleeing a life as a courtesan. She finds shelter in the home of an elderly painter but as she learns the strange and powerful secrets of his art she fears she may have traded a life of servitude for something far more perilous...

The Stormlord is dying in his tower and there is no one, by accident or design, to take his place. He brings the rain from the distant seas to his people. Without a Stormlord, the cities of the Quartern will wither and die.

Their civilization is at the brink of disaster. If Shale and Terelle can find a way to save themselves, they may just save them all. Water is life and the wells are running dry...

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!

A Shadow in Summer (Long Price Quartet, #1) by Daniel Abraham
Genres: Adult, Fantasy

The city-state of Saraykeht dominates the Summer Cities. Its wealth is beyond measure; its port is open to all the merchants of the world, and its ruler, the Khai Saraykeht, commands forces to rival the Gods. Commerce and trade fill the streets with a hundred languages, and the coffers of the wealthy with jewels and gold. Any desire, however exotic or base, can be satisfied in its soft quarter. Blissfully ignorant of the forces that fuel their prosperity, the people live and work secure in the knowledge that their city is a bastion of progress in a harsh world. It would be a tragedy if it fell.

Saraykeht is poised on the knife-edge of disaster.

At the heart of the city's influence are the poet-sorcerer Heshai and the captive spirit, Seedless, whom he controls. For all his power, Heshai is weak, haunted by memories of shame and humiliation. A man faced with constant reminders of his responsibilities and his failures, he is the linchpin and the most vulnerable point in Saraykeht's greatness.

Far to the west, the armies of Galt have conquered many lands. To take Saraykeht, they must first destroy the trade upon which its prosperity is based. Marchat Wilsin, head of Galt's trading house in the city, is planning a terrible crime against Heshai and Seedless. If he succeeds, Saraykeht will fall.

Amat, House Wilsin's business manager, is a woman who rose from the slums to wield the power that Marchat Wilsin would use to destroy her city. Through accidents of fate and circumstance Amat, her apprentice Liat, and two young men from the farthest reaches of their society stand alone against the dangers that threaten the city.

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!

And don’t forget to check out my sequel posts, Ten (More) Ridiculously Cool Magic Systems, Ten (Even More) Ridiculously Cool Magic Systems, Ten (Yet More!) Ridiculously Cool Magic Systems, Ten (Still More) Ridiculously Cool Magic Systems!

Or jump over here to start exploring cool magical abilities!

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3 responses to “Ten Ridiculously Cool Magic Systems!

  1. Ahhh so many cool systems! It makes me realize it’s been a long time since I read a book with a clear magic systems like the ones described here. The Lightbringer series, with its drafting of colours, is one that stood out to me.

  2. Great post! I haven’t read any of these (my TBR just got a bit bigger). I also like the concept of the magic of colors.

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