Every year for Wyrd & Wonder, I make lists of unique magic systems and cool magical abilities. What’s the difference? Well, I define a magic system as something that allows the practitioner to do many things, whereas an ability lets them do one thing – even if that one thing can be utilised in a lot of different ways!
And then I scour everything I’ve ever read to present you the ones I think are most interesting!
So, as per tradition – here is 2023’s list of some of the very coolest magical abilities!
When Trei loses his family in a tragic disaster, he must search out distant relatives in a new land. The Floating Islands are unlike anything Trei has ever seen: stunning, majestic, and graced with kajurai, men who soar the skies with wings.
Trei is instantly sky-mad, and desperate to be a kajurai himself. The only one who fully understands his passion is Araene, his newfound cousin. Prickly, sarcastic, and gifted, Araene has a secret of her own . . . a dream a girl cannot attain.
Trei and Araene quickly become conspirators as they pursue their individual paths. But neither suspects that their lives will be deeply entwined, and that the fate of the Floating Islands will lie in their hands.
Filled with rich language, and told in alternating voices, The Floating Islands is an all-encompassing young adult fantasy read.
The kajurai of the tiny Floating Islands kingdom can fly – because they’ve been granted dragon-magic that lets them see the wind.
And manipulate it. But we’ve all seen elemental-manipulation magic before – it’s the seeing the wind that makes the kajurai incredibly cool to me! Even if that would not be quite so useful if they couldn’t also manipulate it…
12 year-old Meggie lives with her father, Mortimer, a bookbinder. Mo never reads stories aloud to Meggie because he has a special gift: when he reads a book aloud, the characters come out of the book and into the real world.
One night, when Meggie was a small child, Mortimer was reading aloud from a book named Inkheart when an evil villain named Capricorn, his aide Basta, and a fire-eater named Dustfinger escape from the book and into their living room. At the same time, Mo's wife Resa gets trapped within the book.
Twelve years later, Capricorn is on a hunt to find and destroy all copies of Inkheart and use Mo's abilities to gain more power for himself in the real world. Meggie discovers her father's secret and, along with the help of Dustfinger and Meggie's eccentric aunt Elinor, fights to free her father and destroy Capricorn.
In Inkheart and its sequels (the whole series is beautiful and I recommend it most strongly) Mo, the father of main character Maggie, can read things out of books by reading said books aloud. The problems are twofold; for everything that comes out of a book, something goes into it – and Mo has zero control over what (or who!) those things are.
Kind of makes you understand why he might put a total ban on reading aloud!
It’s not just the idea of objects and characters being summoned out of my favourite reads that earns Inkheart a spot on this list – I also really appreciate how much thought Funke put into the ramifications and implications of this kind of magical ability. Every book is its own self-contained world! The characters are alive long before Mo brings them out of the pages! People who go into a book don’t die, they keep on living in the world they’ve fallen into! Which…kind of makes every writer of fiction a full-on god???
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy
Isaac Vainio is a Libriomancer, a member of the secret organization founded five centuries ago by Johannes Gutenberg. Libriomancers are gifted with the ability to magically reach into books and draw forth objects. When Isaac is attacked by vampires that leaked from the pages of books into our world, he barely manages to escape. To his horror he discovers that vampires have been attacking other magic-users as well, and Gutenberg has been kidnapped.
With the help of a motorcycle-riding dryad who packs a pair of oak cudgels, Isaac finds himself hunting the unknown dark power that has been manipulating humans and vampires alike. And his search will uncover dangerous secrets about Libriomancy, Gutenberg, and the history of magic. . . .
Another book-related magical superpower is that of the libriomancers – people who, much like Mo of Inkheart, can draw objects and even people out of a book’s pages and into our world. Unlike Mo, libriomancers have great control over what they take out of a book – and they don’t have to trade anything in to pull something out. I’d call that a pretty big advantage over poor Mo!
Gereint Enseichen of Casmantium knows little and cares less about the recent war in which his king tried to use griffins and fire to wrest territory from the neighboring country of Feierabiand...but he knows that his kingdom's unexpected defeat offers him a chance to escape from his own servitude.But now that the griffins find themselves in a position of strength, they are not inclined to forgive, and the entire kingdom finds itself in deadly peril. Willing or not, Gereint will find himself caught up in a desperate struggle between the griffins and the last remaining Casmantian mage. Even the strongest gifts of making and building may not prove sufficient when the fiery wind of the griffins begins to bury the life of Casmantium beneath the burning sands...
Two Rachel Neumeier books on this year’s list! Well, it’s not my fault she’s so great at coming up with interesting magics.
The second book of the Griffin Mage trilogy – which I think can be read as a standalone if you want to (though why would you, when the first book is also so great???) – features Tehre, an eccentric but brilliant prodigy of the Maker’s art, or gift. Making is a gift that’s a little tricky to define – it’s definitely a soft magic, not a hard one – but I guess the best way to say it would be: the things makers make are better than the things made by not-makers. For instance, in the first book of the trilogy, we briefly meet a woman who has the Maker’s gift for tableware and vases – and not only are her creations very hard to damage, flowers placed in her vases last longer than they naturally would.
Tehre’s Making is much, much bigger than that. Her gift runs towards buildings and bridges – architecture and engineering. She has to study to fully understand the engineering and such involved in designing her creations, like anyone would, but she does have an instinctive grasp for it, and for understanding and manipulating different building materials – and she can design, and build, buildings and bridges that no one else would ever think of, or could pull off if they did. She spends a lot of Land of the Burning Sands trying to work out an equation that can predict how cracks will run through a material placed under stress – and the thing she Makes when she figures it out is just. SERIOUSLY WOW.
Genres: Fantasy, High Fantasy
Six hundred years old, the Imperial Merchant Ship Chathrand is a massive floating outpost of the Empire of Arqual. And it is on its most vital mission yet: to deliver a young woman whose marriage will seal the peace between Arqual and its mortal enemy, the Mzithrin Empire. But Thasha, the young noblewoman in question, may be bringing her swords to the altar.
For the ship’s true mission is not peace but war—a war that threatens to rekindle an ancient power long thought lost. As the Chathrand navigates treacherous waters, Thasha must seek unlikely allies—including a magic-cursed deckhand, a stowaway tribe of foot-high warriors, and a singularly heroic rat—and enter a treacherous web of intrigue to uncover the secret of the legendary Red Wolf.
The Chathrand is the last of her kind. Now, having survived countless battles and centuries of typhoons, it has gone missing. This is her story.
Pazel’s Gift is unreliable, but it’s undeniably useful; when it hits, he can understand every language he encounters, whether written or spoken – and when his Gift ‘passes’, he gets to keep his perfect understanding of those languages! (Although apparently he keeps his native accent no matter what he speaks.) As we see in the first book, his Gift even allows him to hear languages that are inaudible to normal humans! How that works, I don’t know – we just have to accept that it’s magic – but I find that a very cool detail.
Of course, there’s a cost – when his Gift passes (which usually takes a few days) he gets hit with ‘brain fits’, horribly scary phases where he can’t understand any language and also speaks in gibberish himself. That’s bad enough, but his superstitious peers are liable to beat him, abandon him, or even throw him overboard to drown when the fits come.
An amazing ability, and a downside that would be much less of a problem if he wasn’t surrounded by idiots who think he’s possessed or something!
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
The Goblin Emperor meets "Magnificent Century" in Alexandra Rowland's A Taste of Gold and Iron, where a queer central romance unfolds in a fantasy world reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire.
Kadou, the shy prince of Arasht, finds himself at odds with one of the most powerful ambassadors at court—the body-father of the queen's new child—in an altercation which results in his humiliation.
To prove his loyalty to the queen, his sister, Kadou takes responsibility for the investigation of a break-in at one of their guilds, with the help of his newly appointed bodyguard, the coldly handsome Evemer, who seems to tolerate him at best. In Arasht, where princes can touch-taste precious metals with their fingers and myth runs side by side with history, counterfeiting is heresy, and the conspiracy they discover could cripple the kingdom’s financial standing and bring about its ruin.
The title for this one is pretty literal: among Kadou’s people, the ability to ‘taste’ metal via touch is relatively common, allowing a person to recognise the metal in front of them. (No fooling such a person that your gold is just gilt over bronze, for example.) The more sensitive the ability, the easier it is for someone to taste the purity of a metal – how much gold is there in the nation’s gold coins, for example? Has it suddenly been debased with more cheap metals? That particular question is actually very plot-relevant, but the magic is pretty fascinating even separate from that.
One thing I appreciated about this power is that it’s very individual; gold doesn’t ‘taste’ the same to everyone with this ability, and neither does any other metal. The sensory impressions each touch-taster experiences from each metal is unique to them; sometimes it’s a sound, sometimes more of an image, etc. That’s the kind of neat, small detail that turns a magical ability from a cool thing to something I can almost believe in!
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Arthurian legends are reborn in this upbeat queer urban fantasy with a mystery at its heart
The knights of the round table are alive in Vancouver, but when one winds up dead, it’s clear the familiar stories have taken a left turn. Hildie, a Valkyrie and the investigator assigned to the case, wants to find the killer — and maybe figure her life out while she’s at it. On her short list of suspects is Wayne, an autistic college student and the reincarnation of Sir Gawain, who these days is just trying to survive in a world that wasn’t made for him. After finding himself at the scene of the crime, Wayne is pulled deeper into his medieval family history while trying to navigate a new relationship with the dean’s charming assistant, Burt — who also happens to be a prime murder suspect. To figure out the truth, Wayne and Hildie have to connect with dangerous forces: fallen knights, tricky runesmiths, the Wyrd Sisters of Gastown. And a hungry beast that stalks Wayne’s dreams.
The Winter Knight is a propulsive urban fairy tale and detective story with queer and trans heroes that asks what it means to be a myth, who gets to star in these tales, and ultimately, how we make our stories our own.
There’s quite a bit of magic in Winter Knight, but one tiny magical ability especially delighted me: the knights of the round table are able to keep their swords in reflective surfaces, like mirrors and windows. (This might be a sneaky explanation behind Excalibur being in the lake in the old stories – a lake definitely counts as something reflective, right?) Even better, swords don’t have to come out of the glass etc that they went into; you can hide it in one mirror and pull it out of a window later. Convenient!
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy
As Prime magic users, Catalina Baylor and her sisters have extraordinary powers—powers their ruthless grandmother would love to control. Catalina can earn her family some protection working as deputy to the Warden of Texas, overseeing breaches of magic law in the state, but that has risks as well. When House Baylor is under attack and monsters haunt her every step, Catalina is forced to rely on handsome, dangerous Alessandro Sagredo, the Prime who crushed her heart.
The nightmare that Alessandro has fought since childhood has come roaring back to life, but now Catalina is under threat. Not even his lifelong quest for revenge will stop him from keeping her safe, even if every battle could be his last. Because Catalina won't rest until she stops the use of the illicit, power-granting serum that's tearing their world apart.
Emerald Blaze is the first full novel in which Catalina features (she first appears in the earlier books in the series, and you should definitely read those first), and in her own trilogy we learn much more about her magic, which we first hear about in the last book of the first trilogy. Catalina is able to make people love her – and while that’s very helpful in small doses (like when you want someone to answer your questions, or slip you evidence they never would otherwise), if she lets it last too long the ‘love’ turns rabid, and the person or people affected become so desperate to possess her they’ll literally tear her apart.
Definitely not a magical power I’ve seen before!
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy
The girls of Unbreakable Starlight were part of an ancient tradition of magical warriors defending the Earth from the forces of the Outside. They knew their powers and their place, and they planned to fight to the very end. They just didn't think the end would come so very soon.
And they never dreamt that when the dust settled, two of their members would be the last magical protectors in the world.
For Piper, her time as a member of Unbreakable Starlight was the best part of her life, the first and only time that she had been truly happy. She'd had friends, she'd had powers, and she'd had her animal companion to make sure that she understood the patterns she saw in all things. Until it all came crashing down.
For Yuina, whose sister died on the night of the assault that killed most of the world's magical protectors, forgetting what she used to be is all that's mattered to her for years. She's been trying her best to toe the line and be the good little symbol of a forbidden calling that her government wants her to be, and she'll keep trying even if it kills her.
But magical protectors existed for a reason, and even if they've all died and the heralds who used to invite replacements to the fight have been forced into hiding. And if the magical protectors aren't holding the line against the Outside, who is?
Lines exist because somebody drew them, and now, with the world left undefended, the lines are getting blurred. Soon enough, something's going to break.
We made a vow, unshakable:In starlight, we're unbreakable.We’ll protect the world with all we are,And when we fall, we’ll fall like stars.
This is a very minor spoiler, but: in Unbreakable, Piper – one of the last Magical Girls on the planet – secretly has the ability to recognise patterns. In practice, this means she can often predict what’s about to happen, or how she and her team can defeat the monster of the day – making her unbelievably useful, and utterly deadly when she wants to be. And she can definitely pick up on – and understand – when someone is tapping out a coded message to her…
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Paris, 1823. Victor Beauchêne has led a stifling existence, unrecognized for both his cleverness and his gender, except in the pages of his meticulous diary. Abruptly cut off from his family’s fortune, he takes the opportunity to start a new life in a shabby boarding house with his beloved spinster aunt Sophie. There, he stumbles upon two kinds of magic: a pen with eerie powers of persuasion and a reserved, alluring art student named Julien.
Brilliant, unconventional Julien is also Julie, a person whose magical paintings can transform their body or enchant viewers. Haunted by a terrible episode in their past, they’ve come to Paris for artistic success—the ordinary, non-magical kind. Victor, too handsome and far too inquisitive, is a dangerous distraction from their ambitions.
Drawn to each other, Victor and Julie strike up a cautious correspondence of notes slid under doors. It soon unfolds into a passionate romance. Outside the bedroom, their desires clash: Julie wants to distance herself from the world of magic and Victor wants to delve deeper. When the ruthless abuser from Julie’s past resurfaces, he aims to take control of her powers and ruin more lives. Victor and Julie are the only ones who can stop him. Do they trust each other enough to survive the threat to their love and their lives?
The Scandalous Letters of V and J is a historical fantasy romance with two nonbinary main characters, told primarily in letters and diary entries. It is approximately 100,000 words long and sexually explicit.
There are several magics on display in The Scandalous Letters of V and J, but the one I want to focus on is – painting. J, and J’s family, have the ability to change their own bodies – by painting self-portraits. I suspect most of us would love to be able to change how we look, given how beauty-obsessed our world is, but J’s magic means a lot to me because J uses it to alter their appearance and sex to match up with their (fairly fluid) gender identity. Something a lot of us nonbinary or trans people would love to be able to do!
This is only the latest of my lists of magical abilities – you can find the rest below–!
Or hop over here to start exploring my lists of especially epic magic systems!