Friday, 11 March 2011

Magic Systems | Part 1 - Mystery and Technicality

[Spoiler warning - I will be talking about the magic systems of, among others, Brandon Sanderson, George RR Martin, and Steven Erikson in this post, and this does involve a few major spoilers.]

For fantasy that does involve magic - and, let's face it, that's most of the genre - I find how the author fleshes out his or her own magic system to be one of the main attractions - or detractions from - the book. This series of posts is intended to describe different types, a few good - and bad- examples of what's been done, and since the whole thing is subjective anyway: why I like it! This week, I'm looking at one of the key distinctions between types of magic: 'mysterious' magic versus its more 'scientific' counterpart.

First, I'll define the terms we're dealing with. There's a scale between the two, and various combinations are possible, but a straight example of 'mysterious' magic is that of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. There's magic there - Daenerys can walk into fire to retrieve her dragons unharmed, swords can burn without heat, and there's a great deal more - but it shares, currently, one common trait. The reader doesn't understand any of it. Yes, there are links - between magic and dragons, for example, and the worship of R'hollor. So maybe it's not entirely mysterious, but it's certainly mostly so! And there are benefits to this. It certainly brings a sense of wonder to the series, and who isn't surprised by the drama inherent at Dany's hatching of the dragons? But it's relatively rare in the books - like Sanderson's First Law describes, it's so mysterious that it isn't used often, and never by protagonists - except Bran, whose abilities this far haven't been used to resolve conflicts.

At the other and are the very 'scientific' systems: those of Sanderson himself, for example. In the Mistborn Trilogy, we have the initial rules of Allomancy, and these are always adhered to, except in very specific cases. When this happens, it's because there are deeper rules at play - as are discovered in the trilogy's second and third books! So a 'scientific' magic system is one which plays by rules - one which the reader can understand and even predict. From this example, we can see that those rules can be broken, but only for a reason that's rooted more in deeper rules - not 'Oh, he's "pure of heart" so, um, of course he won't die when everyone else has'. This is a stupid excuse. Furthermore, the reader doesn't have to know these rules, but they do, I think, have to be at least partially revealed. Sanderson's magic systems are all excellent examples of these.

So, what are the advantages of doing magic this way? You can use it as much as you like, that's what. In Mistborn, allomancy and the other systems are used as important plot elements, and used to resolve dilemmas and problems - without being simple deux-ex-machina resolutions. Martin, on the other hand, rarely uses magic, and almost never to resolve a situation - only to complicate it. Yes, we know that the Others appear, and that dragonglass/obsidian hurts them. So the reader's understand is used then - we're not surprised, and it's no cheat when an other dies in this way. But any other areas of Martin's magic go unused to resolve the plot. Now look at Sanderson's excellent trilogy - this different advantage allows characters to use his magic on a regular basis. Vin, herself, is a mistborn - an allomancer.

The other advantage is that instead of a sense of exploration, we get a sense of exploration - the reader is invited to explore, to try and attempt to scale the system's intricacies and to figure it out. In Jude Fisher's Sorcery Rising, this type of effort from the reader would be pointless - there's no signs of a system there. But in Sanderson's worlds, the reader is rewarded, and this exploration is a main focus of the plot.

So, which do I like better? The answer, I'm afraid, is neither. Both are appropriate in different novels, and combinations are equally appropriate. Steven Erikson, for example, starts with a relatively simple rule based system of warrens - then adds mysteries to it. What are the Houses of the Azath? What's the link to the Deck of Dragons? What are the warrens themselves? What happened to Father Light? Yes, Erikson's books do get to play with your head, and there are one or two endings which some readers consider deux ex machina. But in his earlier books, and hopefully this will be resolved in The Crippled God as well, Erikson does a superb job - introducing questions, and even, particularly in Memories of Ice, answering them. I'm just hoping that the finale will work as well!


  1. What a great post! I'm always interested in the different mythologys that great paranormal writers give us. I just want it to make sense for their world and to seem slightly original.

  2. Thank you! Yes, I always feel the same way, and magic is always a key part - in my opinion, at least. actually, I'll be reviewing an urban fantasy that does that very originally soon!

  3. Have you ever read Master of the Five Magics by Lyndon Hardy? Under-appreciated novel (as well as the sequels) that had perhaps one of the best magic systems I've seen. Certainly worth a read for this alone. The use of mirrors in Stephen Donaldson's Mordant's Need duology provided a cool magic system as well.

  4. No, I haven't, though I've heard it recommended - I'll order it now. Thanks for the recommendation. Yes, I always find that the most limited and specific magic systems are the most interesting (limited in direct effect): that way, any indirect use can be appreciated and enjoyed, rather than being another 'oh, he pulled a firestorm/new spell that nobody's ever seen before' out of nowhere. That, for me, is why I enjoyed Rothfuss' sympathetic magic system so much. (I need to get on to Donaldson again, though. Haven't read 'Against All Things Ending' yet!). Have you read Juliet E. McKenna's Einarinn series, by the way? The magic isn't so original, but it is an example of elemental magic done well, and the aetheric (mind) magic is interesting as well, in its use of the focus of religion - but emphasising that this was only one way of gaining this.

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