Sunday, 18 August 2013

Article | Maintaining Mystery and Mysticality in Magic

...I may have gone over the top on the 'M's in that title.

Anyway, my readthrough of Lois McMaster Bujold's The Hallowed Hunt got me thinking on its magic system, based around the binding of animal spirits, and of course, sacrifice. It's a system tilted towards the 'mysterious' end of the scale, still far from the Gandalf level of opacity but much, much further from -say- Mistborn. And with fantasy seeming to turn more towards the Sanderson-esque rule based systems, I thought it would be worth looking at the benefits of a more mysterious magic system, and what, in the best examples, really makes it work.

Firstly, the best systems - to my mind - balance both aspects. And it all comes back to Sanderson's First Law: "an author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic". If the magic is ultimately mysterious - if the reader can't understand its limitations, powers, and abilities at all - then the magic must be irrelevant, it can at most provide some of the book's problems, but never solve them. Take The Lord of the Rings: Gandalf's abilities are enough to be convincing, but for the most part, he's never a real problem solver. And when he does, well, then it comes down to the next element for me:

Price. In order to believe that somebody won't just swoop in and save the day with magic, and to keep that sense of the forbidden, there has to be a price - and a high one. Take George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Magic is rare, but it does get involved in the plotline, and with consequences. What keeps it from becoming simply another utility (albeit one fairly incomprehensible to the reader)? The cost. It's bloody, largely religious, and nobody in their right mind is going to use it unless they have to. And that helps to maintain it as mystical, rather than a more magical shovel-replacement (as in some high-magic worlds). Rachel Aaron's The Spirit Thief does this by making it dependent on spirits. You want them to do something, and keep doing it? You're going to need leverage, and there's no guarantee someone's not going to forget their "holding up a bridge" bargain.

Another element is specificity. In my opinion, the magic systems which work best at keeping a sense of the mystical are specific, limited to a couple of areas - they're not the "do everything" sorcery of, say, the Dragaera books (which I do love). This ties into the price as well, because if your magic system can do pretty much everything, sooner or later lots of instances are going to crop up where your bloody, high cost magic does become the easier option, and maybe not atmospherically. Magical curses on rival banks? It's going to happen. I loved The Hallowed Hunt's system precisely because it was limited [spoilers!] - Ingrey got a few mystical powers relating to other possessed men and women, but apart from that, it was just the weirding voice: magically commanding people. Constraining your magic helps to keep it mystical.

And lastly, we've talked about how to keep it rare, but keeping it mysterious is more than that. Some of the best systems do it via stories: there's no Mistborn esque, manual-style explanation. Instead, it's more legend and stories: "never open the eighth door on a moonlit night or something bad will happen" rather than "do that and a 40 foot woodworm will devour your books (and you)". Wards off the video game feeling.

Anyway, that's my quick take on the subject - as always, just an opinion, and I'd love to hear what other people think, as well as any recommendations. These are all things my favourite books do when attempting to keep magic at least a little mysterious. Personally, I like rules to my magic - and I like to discover them - but I can't deny that I enjoy a good atmosphere to a story as well, and this, well, helps. Sometimes the best novels are in the middle: the first three Erikson books embody this (don't mention what happens to the magic system after that. Mostly).


  1. I've seen Branderson's lecture on youtube and before that, I don't think I thought about it that, like magic happens on a scale from Inexplicable to science-like rules. I like it though.

    And, yeah, price is probably one of the better ways to put a limit on it.

  2. I think the best magic is the limited kind...If there weren't any rules to how magic can be used, what would be the point of a story? The main character goes on a highly elaborate quest, even though he could snap his fingers and solve all his problems without ever leaving home?

    I've read The Magicians this summer and I didn't like it at all... One page says the possibilities are endless, the next says there are prices to using magic...Which is it? Its like the author was making it up as he went along...

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