Magic is important in the fantasy genre, a key element in what qualifies a story as a fantasy-themed work. We are all used to different, if limited, portrayals of magic in contemporary media. Usually, there’s an old, bearded man. There’s probably a staff, and somewhere, there’s a fireball. This is true whether that fireball is Wizard’s Fire or a Detonation Spell or Firaga.
While variations on a theme are comfortable and easy to digest, sometimes readers require a substantial deviation from the norm. Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series relies on conventional magic as a basis for more complex magical theory. One has to only start reading a scene involving prophecy to know that Goodkind put a large amount of thought into the role magic would serve in the world he created. And, while Goodkind’s presentation of magic is certainly unique, one other work that I’ve read recently takes the concept of magic that I expect to see and stands it on its head.
I originally intended to do a review on Sabriel. Instead, I’ve decided to pinpoint the aspect of the book that I really liked: Garth Nix‘s presentation of Magic.
Nix’s story is divided between two locations: Ancelstierre (A parallel to 20th century England), and the Old Kingdom, a place where magic is real and spirits exist. There are several different orders of magic: The Charter, magic created by great beings of old and used by many in both worlds; The Clayr, a group of seers; and Necromancy, those magicians who interact with and banish the dead. The most powerful necromancer, and arguably the most powerful magician in either of the two worlds is the Abhorsen, which is actually a title of office. The Abhorsen uses the magic of the Charter along with Seven Bells (which grant great power to the one that rings them) to keep the dead spirits and creatures at bay.
Charter Magic, functions through the use of Charter Marks. Charter Marks are inherently powerful, and a focus is needed by weaker mages to properly draw them and complete magic spells.
Free Magic is Magic that is not bound into the charter. It is considered dangerous, and those who use it are considered more dangerous. The Abhorsen’s bells use Free Magic, and each of those bells can cause serious harm to an untrained user. The Abhorsen must use both types of magic in his/her attempt to protect the world of the living from the world of the dead.
Nix’s presentation is substantially different from any I’ve seen before. While in some systems, magic is an inherent part of life, or in others, magic is feared and magicians thought to be dangerous to no end, Nix presents a mixture of the two. Magic exists in the Old Kingdom, and sometimes it spills into Ancelstierre. When it does, technology goes on the fritz. Magic in the Old Kingdom is interwoven in the very beginnings of time. Seven creatures of Free Magic chose to weave the charter that bound Free Magic for use by other beings. The Charter, being the predominant (and accepted) form of magic is acknowleged by people of the Old Kingdom and in Ancelstierre.
The use of Charter Marks is well presented in Sabriel. Nix walks the reader though it slowly, giving us tiny tidbits of its use (Such as when Sabriel, upon entering the Old Kingdom, purifies a dead soldier’s corpse with Charter fire, or when Touchstone defends the group of adventurers from a hail of arrows by drawing Charter marks in the air with his swords.) Nix writes each scene featuring the bells beautifully, giving the reader key tidbits of their personalities and powers. Mogget, a powerful Free Magic creature bound in the body of a white cat, also serves as the “alien sensei”, teaching Sabriel about her powers. Nix’s illustrations of the use of magic in his worlds gives me hope, since I am trying to weave a complex and unconventional magical system as the crux of my novel.
I’ll leave you with a quote, from an interview with Nix that sums up his thinking in regard to magical systems.
I think there is some danger even in the words “magic system”. It implies a magic like a technology, where everything is worked out and there is no mystery. I tend to think only of the very basics, like what the magic looks like and how it is cast, and then let it develop through the course of the story. The magic has to be consistent to maintain the reader’s suspension of disbelief, but not so worked out and described that it becomes mundane and no more interesting than an electric stove or a rifle.
I hope that my work showcases my love for magic and the importance that I place upon it as an element of good story.
Have you read anything with a really awesome system of magic? What made it stand out? Does complexity in a system of magic help or hinder it?