Welcome back, readers, to the second instalment of my look at interesting and novel magic systems. The first article can be found here. As a reminder, the purpose of these articles is just to bring to your attention creative and interesting magic systems that I’ve come across. The list is not ranked, nor is there anything in the descriptions about whether the books themselves are good or bad (hint: they’re all good). All I hope is that I’ll interest some of you in a new book or series that you might not have considered because of their wicked awesome magic systems! Enjoy!
Author: Brandon Sanderson
To paraphrase author Joe Abercrombie, ‘Say one thing for Brandon Sanderson, say he knows how to make a magic system.’ If you like your magic systems interesting, well-thought out and above all, very logical and consistent, look no further than Allomancy. Allomancers in this world ‘burn’ metals in their bodies for various effects. Most practitioners have only one talent, in various books taking place at various eras, some have multiple talents, some have every talent. But each one is explicit in what it is and how it works. Burning iron allows you to pull on metals. Burning steel allows you to push them. Zinc allows you in enflame emotions, brass depresses emotions. And so on. And all of it obeys physics as well. If you are very light, and you push on an iron door, you’re going to be moved away from it since it is heavier than you. If you push on a coin, it will move away from you since you’re heavier.
An extension of this is Feruchemy, which rather than allow somebody to burn a metal for an effect, uses a metal to store up a quality to be called upon at will later. One could use iron (called an ironmind) to store up physical weight. So what they would have to do is basically be lighter while they were feeding their excess weight into the metalmind, and then later they could call up that stored weight to become heavy. Similarly, you could make yourself be blind for a time, to store sight in a tinmind to give yourself sharper sight when you needed it. Very logical, very understandable, very clearly explained and executed. If you like to get some science in your magic, this is a series for you.
Series/Title: The Golden Key
Author: Kate Elliott, Jennifer Roberson and Melanie Rawn
In the world of Elliott, Roberson and Rawn’s The Golden Key (The world seems to only be picked up again by Rawn, and that was to write a prequel) painting is the art prized above all others. Treaties, betrothals, marriages, trading agreements; all are recorded in art rather than documents. A large part of the reason for this is the understanding made between the Dukes of the land and the Grijalvas, an insular family of artists. There is artistic gift, and then artistic Gift. Only the Grijalvans have the Gift, which allows certain of their number, through the use of their own life forces and a deep knowledge of symbolism and allusion, to create paintings that actually influence reality. Painting a Marriage Portrait between a foreign leader and a local princess, using images of loyalty, submission, and steadfastness will secure an alliance better than any trading terms.
There are also even more dangerous uses of this talent. Fearing any Gifted artist who might use their powers for personal gain and not the gain of the family, each Gifted artist must put into the keeping of the masters of the family an already enchanted self-portrait. If they step out of line, anything done to the portrait will happen to the artist, including anything from stabbing the painting with a pin, to painting the person blind or crippled. This system suffers a little from the ‘I’m not sure you considered all the consequences’ syndrome that often plagues this kind of magic system. I can think of so many things that were never even considered by the characters of the book to abuse this kind of sympathetic magic, but it was still a great system and a pleasure to read.
Series/Title: The Order
Author: Philippa Ballantine
In the world of Philippa Ballantine’s The Order, the world of spirits and ghosts and geists is absolutely real. To deal with the often violent and always pretty uncomfortable incursions into our reality made by these spirits, The Order has risen up to take advantage of various magical powers. ‘Actives’ have a magical gauntlet which allows them to use ‘Runes of Dominion’ which seem mostly telekinetic and pyrokinetic. They can open gateways into the Otherside and channel various bits of energy to try and force spirits back through or drain them of power. They are accompanied by ‘Sensitives’ who use the ‘Runes of Sight’ to act like scouts, with abilities like remote viewing, and even the ability to see forwards or backwards through time.
In the general run of the mill use of these powers, they feel a little like the Ghostbusters to me. There’s a particular set of powers which are the ‘go-to’ for most situations involving spirits. Figure out what their deal is, help them on their way by either negotiating with them and opening them a portal to the Otherside to go through, or else drain them until they are weak enough to be forced through. They have a few panic buttons in case things go south, but this appears mostly to be a purely practical form of magic for a world which needs it. The threat of geists and spectyrs from the Otherside is significant enough that I don’t think anybody has even considered if things like a rune which allows you to see the future might be used for personal gain. It’s not an exceptionally exciting system of magic, but in its place in the setting, it is really interesting with a lot of great discussions in the text about the use of their powers.
Series/Title: The Forgotten Realms and others
Now we get to a very classic magic system. Originally created by Jack Vance, it is most famous for being the magic system the Forgotten Realms and Dungeons and Dragons fantasy settings are built upon. The fundamental process is incredibly simple to understand. A wizard may know many spells, but the measure of their power is a limit on how many they can prepare at a time. In the evening, a wizard prepares which of their spells they want to memorize for the following day. That day, any time they use a spell, that spell is burned from their mind until they next have an uninterrupted rest period to prepare them once more.
While it’s obvious that this system was co-opted by Dungeons and Dragons for the way it fits into game balance, it’s also applicable in general fiction in a way I really like. It levels the playing field. In too many magic systems, the magic-users pretty much get to rule on high because it doesn’t matter if you have a sword and armour when I have fireballs. While it’s a common trope in fiction for wizards to tire themselves out from using too much magic, it’s usually after they’ve just levelled a castle or fought off a horde of goblins. I like a system like this where canny non-magic-users can just wait out a wizard, catch him at the end of the day when he’s almost out of spells and bring him down to the level of everyone else.
Author: Blake Charleton
The tenth and final entry on this list is Spellwrighting, as described in the eponymous novel by Blake Charleton. In it, language is both figuratively and literally (or as they say these days: literally and literally) the underpinnings of magic. Magic is written as words, sentences, or paragraphs which are placed, thrown or otherwise manipulated for their effect. Practitioners will essentially call up the writing onto their skin where it will collect in their hands to be thrown. While this sounds like a pretty awesome system in theory, we’re treated to virtually -no- depictions of this magical language in the text, and only the most cursory descriptions of the magic in action.
What little we can see displayed in the text is the most simple of the languages they basically teach to children, which reads like a combination BASIC computer program and Mad Lib. I feel like this system really has a lot of promise, but from just what is shown in the first book, left a little to be desired,(I’ve read only the first novel of a trilogy) due to the fact that you really can’t have a magic system based deeply in language and words, but never actually show us what the words look like.
And that brings us to the end of our list! I hope you enjoyed this look at novel and interesting systems of magic, and I hope you’ve been inspired to check out at least one new book. I know I’ve left out a lot of great spell systems, so don’t hesitate to sound off in the comments with your favourite magic system for everyone else to look at! Thanks for reading!