One of the most enduring tropes in fantasy as a genre is the presence of magic in the setting. Magic systems can be simple or complex, intuitive or formalized, flashy or subtle. Often-times, the magic system can make or break a fantasy setting. While there are a few commonalities between most magic systems, a number of authors have created truly novel and fascinating systems of the arcane and obscure. This list cares about the novelty and originality of the magic system and not necessarily about the quality of the story in which it resides, though it so happens that all of these books are books I’ve read and quite enjoyed. They’re also in no particular order. This list is aimed at bringing to your attention books you might not have tried, not to rank them. So get your wizard robe and hat ready, and let’s see if we can’t pique your interest in a new fantasy series with sweet wizards or awesome sorcerers. Stay tuned next time as well for a continuation featuring another five interesting magic systems!
The One Power
Series/Title: The Wheel of Time
Author: Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson
Users of The One Power can be born with the talent or taught it, and women who can use The One Power are called Aes Sedai. Due to tragedies in the history of this world, the male half of the One Power is tainted, and any men who use it are pretty much doomed to go insane. That’s a bit of a downer.
The One Power itself is element-based. Practitioners channel weaves of earth, air, fire, water, and spirit for a variety of effects which fall under most of the typical magic spell catalogue. The unique things about The One Power are that each person has an inborn limit to how powerful they can become no matter how hard they try, and most interesting to me, whatever limits you personally think your magic has, it has. There are some Aes Sedai who can only channel to places they can see (and thus couldn’t throw fireballs over the tree line) or associate particular movements or motions with their weaves which others don’t (so some of them just stand there and fireballs appear, and others have to make a throwing motion with their hands). Doesn’t matter what artificial limit you’ve put on it, you’re pretty much stuck with it, and trying not to do it just makes things not work.
It has a few ‘no exceptions’ rules like, ‘You can’t use it to make yourself fly or levitate’ that are never really investigated as to whether they are universal rules, or just more of those artificial limits, so it feels like the degree to which it is tradition-based holds it back. But overall it’s a well developed and internally consistent system.
Series/Title: The Demon Cycle
Author: Peter V. Brett
While runic magic in general is nothing especially new or exciting, Peter Brett’s Ward magic takes it to an entirely new level. In a world where every night at sundown, ravening hordes of demons rise up and maraud around the countryside killing anybody in their path, the only thing keeping the limited pockets of humanity alive are rings of wards, which create a shield around the protected area that the demons cannot pass through. Later in the books, the rediscovery of offensive wards leads to warded weaponry, warded armour and even, in the eponymous first book of the series a Warded Man.
As a system, Brett is a little scant on details. There are ‘wards of protection,’ but it’s never especially shown that they are particular specific wards, or whether they have to be in a certain order, or whether you could change them around to accomplish slightly different tasks, and nobody ever really seems to try. Unlike many systems though, knowledge of wards is actually slowly slipping away as we begin the series, so you get a great sense of involvement in the process as old runes are rediscovered and the tide begins to turn.
Order-magic and Chaos-magic
Series/Title: The Saga of Recluce
Author: L.E. Modesitt Jr
Speaking of getting some science in your magic, I recently had The Saga of Recluce suggested to me and found myself in a world where the magic feels suspiciously like some sort of molecular physics engine rather than a spell system. There is order, and there is chaos. The two exist in balance and opposition. Order wizards support and strengthen the natural bonds of things. They encourage the essential nature of things. Well-made things increase order. Chaos wizards break down the natural bonds of things, and poorly made things increase chaos. They also sort of hedge each other out. Recluce as a place (which is the only reason I can possibly forgive that spelling!) is a massive bastion of order. Every door, every chair, every painted wall and road is exactly perfect, without flaw. This much order basically makes them immune to the predations of chaos mages or chaos in general. Likewise, at one point we are shown a scene in a stronghold of a Chaos-mage, and the plaster is cracked, the tables have crooked legs, the painting is haphazard. Practitioners of Chaos are actually themselves inimical to order in the same way that Order Wizards seem to feel physically ill if they were to lie.
The whole thing is really fascinating and includes a lot of interesting philosophical questions as well. Since High-Order wizards pretty much can’t bring themselves to do anything that increases chaos, though chaos is easier, more powerful and ‘stronger’ in isolation, there’s great temptation to justify the use of chaos to increase order. The magic here is typically more subtle in the Gandalf school than flashy, though chaos does lend itself to fireballs. I’ve only read a few novels in this world, but I’m looking forward to more with this magic system in the future.
Series/Title: Magic ex Libris
Author: Jim C. Hines
Genre: Modern Fantasy
And now science will take a flying leap out the window. Libriomancy is the magic system for the serious nerd. Take a book. Find a detailed description of an object in said book. Reach into the book, pull out the object. Broadsword? Check. Ray gun? Check. Lightsaber? Check. Elixir of Youth? Sure why not! The only limit to what you can do with Libriomancy is that the item and book you’re using has to be widespread enough in knowledge that there is some collective belief in the thing as a thing. So no writing your own book at home and making anything you want.
This is really one of those ‘the possibilities are endless’ sorts of magic system. This can also lead to some frustration when reading these books, when the character is trying to decide which tool is right for a job, and not thinking of your most favourite book, and for god sakes man, how hard is this?! But you get through it. The rules here are fairly consistent and easily understood, but a certain amount of putative rule breaking happens to make you wonder about the underpinnings of the system. Which is my only other complaint thus far, though it may be addressed in later books in the Magic ex Libris series: the lack of any real underlying mechanics. The first Libriomancer (Gutenberg, awesomely enough) just sort of…figures out that this will work, and it does. I can’t help but feel there’s more to discover there, but this is a fun and dynamic magic system that was great to read.
Series/Title: The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Author: Steven Erikson
The Warren system of Malazan is, from a reader perspective, very mysterious. There are a large number of practitioners, but their use of this magic is so personal and generally kept quiet enough that you’re forced to piece together your understanding from many disparate clues. This is also one of my favourite things about this magic system: the way nobody gets tasked with the narrative dump to explain things.
At their core, Warrens seem to be about affinity. Each warren has an associated element or alignment. There is Denul, the path of healing, Ruse, the path of the sea, and so on. There’s no fixed list of abilities a given practitioner has access to. It seems more like a flavoured energy they have, and they shape it based on their own particular needs and past. The other really fascinating thing about the Warrens is they are also, in some way, physical places as well, parallel worlds that people can travel through, though they’re not especially happy places for the most part. For a magic system that feels incredibly deep, but which teases you with only glimpses, Warrens are the way to go.
So there you have the first instalment of interesting and novel magic systems. Stay tuned next time for another five magic systems including magic based in metal, magic based in art, and magic based in the awesome power of words! Thanks for reading!