New poll - Magic systems

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

In my last poll, I wanted to explore some genre bending or mixing.  I was interested in finding out which genre creates the best mix with Epic Fantasy. The top four answers were:

Military - 31%
Dark - 21%
Steampunk - 12%
Historical - 12%

I was surprised by the result. With the trend of 'grimdark' Fantasy, I thought that Dark would have been higher in term of percentage. It seems that the Epic genre can't really be dissociated with the military element found more often than not in our favorite books.  However, a fresh dose of genre bending will always be welcomed.

On to the next subject!

Illustration by Kekai Kotaki

If you have followed my reviews over the years on the blog, you know that I rate the books on a ten-point scale and that I rate five more categories to give some perspective, point things out. I'm not writing this post to talk about the ratings, this has already been discussed, but to talk about one specific element, magic systems.

Magic is a fundamental aspect of Fantasy, it's what differentiates the genre.  It may not be paramount to a great story but it can add a nice flavor to a story built around great characters and a compelling story.  Magic is usually a talent, a force, supernatural powers or simply the unexplained when no god is around to justify or blame it on. Who doesn't like magic?

I will have to write a AFR Top List for the best magic system I read about in my years of Fantasy reading but for now, I can still throw out some names. Robert Jordan's Saidin and Saidar are unavoidable, the warrens of Steven Erikson were complex but brilliant, Brandon Sanderson came up with originality when he presented allomancy, Blake Charlton created one in parallel with his disability in Spellwright and Brent Weeks felt colorful when he invented chromaturgy for the Lightbringer series.

The use of the 'magic system' terminology seems to be creating dissension into the ranks of Fantasy readers, even if it's simply a term used so we can understand each other. Usually, when you think of magic systems, rules more often than not find their ways into the melee.  Orson Scott Card wrote about it in a book (with a very interesting argument about the price of magic and the balance it creates or breaks) and Brandon Sanderson posted this essay (which include a law...), beginning with:

I like magic systems. That's probably evident to those of you who have read my work. A solid, interesting and innovative system of magic in a book is something that really appeals to me. True, characters are what make a story narratively powerful but magic is a large part of what makes the fantasy genre distinctive.
You can't really disagree with him on that part.  However, after this he explains the intricacies, uses, boundaries of magic systems and how it should be developed. Many Fantasy authors spend a lot of time on their magic system (or simply on the magic present in their world) and it can become a distraction, it's a dangerous line to follow.  But then, I think that it's mostly the same for the world building and the infamous info-dumps, the stereotypical or one-sided protagonists and the all-tangled-up storylines.  Whether you do an intricate magic system or not, I don't think that the success of it depends on its creativity but on its execution. Can it save a poorly written novel?

I think that indeed, a magic system ought to have limits but they don't really have to be crystal clear and explained as if I was reading a physics book. However, I'm a fan of original magic systems and I tend to prefer when some explaining is done, slowly, throughout the tale. Apprentices are the best avatars in this instance. I love some mystery around it but I hate it when something comes out of nowhere to save the day without any hints as to why it was possible.

Here's more on the topic:

What's your preference for a magic system?

  • Clear explanations with rules and boundaries
  • A system shrouded in mystery
  • Something that comes out of nowhere
  • Don't care
  • Why magic?


Ghost said...

I think the most important thing about the magic system is that it must be consistent. I don’t really care if it has clear explanations or if it’s shrouded in mystery as long as it is consistent. I think that's far more important than how the system works. The worst that can happen is when the magic-users suddenly can do amazing stuff that they should not be able to (ever read the Anita Blake series?). When that happens, I lose interest.

Michael Offutt, S.F.A. said...

I guess I'm just not a dedicated fanboi of fantasy (even though I read a lot of fantasy books and I even write some). Here's why I say this: I could care less about authors being "clever" with their magic systems.

I like good stories. I don't care if certain metals make magic and one metal is rarer than all the others. I don't care if all the magic comes from the power of your brain or your will. I don't care if it's chi or given by a god.

Just don't over explain it and write a good story with a great villain. I like to see great villains get their butts kicked. That's what's fun for me.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Ghost in most aspects, however there is so much of this type of content now that there are no boundaries for rules as such. the mystery is in making the reader aware that there is pleasure in learning to understand what lies within. The boundaries set by design are no apparent until the very end if you want to keep the reader absorbed by the story. It is not about amazing feats or heroism, it is more about continuity and realism that a fantasy brings to the reader. You can create any such place, being, action, as long as there is path that is relative to maintaining structure and critical points of interest that are part of the foundation of a good read.

AKinferno said...

Nice article. Interesting enough, I my have to spend some more time on your site :)

I love unique magic systems. Although I don't want too much time spent explaining it, it is nice to learn it with the characters. Brandon Sanderson made me a fan with Elantris and the Mistborn series. Patrick Rothfuss, Brent Weeks, Jim Butcher (Alera series) and Peter V. Brett are some of the more recent ones I have read. Another interesting one for computer geeks, check out Kelly McCullough's Ravirn series.

Anyway, I agree the characters are most important, but if the world is bland or boring, who cares if the good guys struggles against a bad guy and ultimately wins. We all know how the story goes and how it will end (with the exception of Song of Fire and Ice, everyone there is likely dead before the end of that series). The magic system is a good carrot. When characters story slows down, the magic system and world are there to keep your mine working, thinking of possibilities, trying to predict limits and possibilities.

AKinferno said...

Ugh, need an edit button. English fail...

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