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).

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Review | The Hallowed Hunt - Lois McMaster Bujold

Bujold has always been one of my favourite authors - and The Curse of Chalion definitely makes my (entirely imaginary) list of top ten novels: ie. I get a periodic and unavoidable desire to reread it. A lot. The Hallowed Hunt is the third novel set in the Curse of Chalion's world, and with each focusing on one of the world's five gods (Mother, Father, Son, Daughter, and Bastard), Hunt is firmly the Son's book. And it's well worth a read.

Set in the Wealds, an Orthodox Quintarian country built on the remnants of... a much older one. But the Old Wealds aren't quite as dead as all that, and their practices of binding animal spirits aren't either. Ingrey kin Wolfcliff, possessed of - you guessed it - an illegally-bound wolf spirit, is the one who ends up discovering this first hand. When the Lady Ijada kills Prince Boleso in self-defence, Ingrey is sent to escort her for trial - but he rapidly finds out that some unknown power is manipulating both him and Ijada for some unknown purpose, and one intimately involved with the magics of the Old Wealds.

In Bujold's best vein, the characterisation is superb - even if Ingrey isn't quite a Miles Vorkosigan, an Ista, or a Cazaril, he's still a convincing protagonist, and despite his curse, he avoids the worst cases of the "reluctant hero trope". Basically? It avoids cliches and hits believability. Which in turn is something that any reader appreciates! Ijada, similarly, is a great character, and very refreshing in that she reverses the tired old "man constrained by duty, woman urges him to desert obligation..." dynamic: Ijada, of the two, is the one who feels obligated - where Ingrey suggests fleeing the country! Though again, not quite Ista (who in the second half of Paladin of Souls is one of my benchmarks), the pair work well together.

The magic system, on the other hand, feels far darker -and seems more inspired - than that of Paladin: not in the same way as, say, Sanderson. whose intensely imaginative rule-based systems are well known, but more in the sense of what it evokes. Mistborn's magic is one easily imagined, understood in detail. The Hallowed Hunt's brings that sense of mystery: the feeling of the forbidden, brought up through images like those in the Wounded Woods, rather than the pretty lights and the other typical magical trappings.

However, the pacing does falter around the novel's midpoint. This is, to me, essentially due to the novel's antagonist. While unknown, and when known for certain, the suspense is kept high: they're a genuinely interesting, unpredictable adversary. But somewhere in the middle, there's a... gap. The hints as to this antagonist's identity are rather heavy handed, leaving a space where he's essentially known to the reader, but not to the characters, which - for a short time - is a little frustrating. Thankfully, more revelations soon bring an end to this and surprise the reader, putting both reader and characters on an even footing, but it does create a small pause.

Overall? The Hallowed Hunt will never overtake Curse in my affections, but it's definitely a deserving contender for your attention: far from one of Bujold's weaker novels, it's a fast paced read with a well-matched duo, one of the darker and more mystical magics I've seen (and if you like the atmospheric in fantasy, take your cue here!), and a convincing (though mainly angst free, in the long-winded sense at least) dilemma. Ingrey isn't sure if the gods are on his side or if he's part of a sacrifice play, and better, nor is the reader. For that alone I'd read it!