Today, we’re going on a trip to the fantastical realm of magic systems in fantasy, the invisible scaffolding supporting the marvellous spectacles in our beloved enchanting tales.
As ubiquitous as a unicorn in a fairy tale, these systems are the heart and soul of many a fantastical narrative.
What is a Magic System?
A magic system is the set of rules that governs the use of magic in a fantasy world.
Yes, that’s right, even magic—seemingly the epitome of unregulated whimsy—has rules.
Magic systems dictate who can use magic, what they can and cannot do with it, and what consequences follow when they twirl their wand, click their ruby slippers, or utter cryptic phrases (which, for some reason, are often in Latin).
Why are Magic Systems Necessary?
You might ask, “Why bother with all these rules? Isn’t magic meant to be, well, magical?”
Magic systems are not an elaborate scheme to sap the fun out of wizards’ lives.
On the contrary, they give structure and believability to a world.
Imagine watching a Quidditch match where players can score a million points with a wave of their wand.
That would make for a rather short and dull game, wouldn’t it?
Simply put, restrictions breed creativity and tension.
They allow for plot twists, character growth, and most importantly, they keep us, the readers, at the edge of our seats.
After all, where would be the excitement if our hero could simply wave away every dragon, riddling sphinx, or marauding orc army with the flick of a wrist?
The Magical Spectrum: From Mystical to Scientific
Magic systems come in all shapes and sizes, from those shrouded in the mists of mystery to those laid out like a physics textbook.
On the one end of the spectrum, we have Mystical Magic Systems.
These are the systems that maintain an aura of mystery and capriciousness.
They function more like an art than a science, relying heavily on intuition, emotions, or the whims of magical entities.
Rules? Pah! These systems scoff at rules. They are as unpredictable as a box of kittens, and just as likely to change direction without notice.
At the other end, we have Scientific Magic Systems.
These systems have detailed rules and clear limitations.
They’re logical, predictable, and follow consistent principles, much like the laws of physics (well, if physics included spells and potions, of course).
They can make magic feel as commonplace as making a cup of tea, but when done right, they give a sense of realism to the fantastical.
They are to magic what an Ikea manual is to flat-pack furniture— demystifying, useful, but sometimes downright baffling.
Of course, most magic systems fall somewhere in between these two extremes.
They maintain an air of enigma while also keeping a tight leash on magical escapades.
The magic may be mysterious, but its application and limitations are usually well-defined.
In the end, the choice of magic system depends on what serves the story best.
Some tales benefit from the ethereal nature of a mystical system, while others require the rigour of a scientific system.
Just like a good cuppa, it’s all about personal taste and the right blend.
The Evolution of Magic Systems
Magic systems in fantasy literature have evolved from the grand, ambiguous power of the likes of Gandalf to the intricately detailed and logical systems seen in novels like Brandon Sanderson’s “Mistborn” series.
In the beginning, there was Tolkien. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not implying that J.R.R. was the first to pen fantasy. But let’s face it, his influence on the genre is as immeasurable as the length of a hobbit’s second breakfast.
In “The Lord of the Rings,” magic is as elusive as a straight answer from a politician.
It’s more about a sense of wonder, a mystical force that surrounds wizards, elves, and enchanted objects.
Gandalf, our favourite wizard (sorry, Rincewind), seldom explains his power, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Le Guin’s True Names
Then, we have our good friend Ursula K. Le Guin, who introduced us to the wizard Ged in “A Wizard of Earthsea.”
Le Guin’s magic is based on the “True Names” of things.
It’s a bit like having a secret nickname for your toaster that, once uttered, can make it dance the cha-cha.
It’s a more systematic approach than Tolkien’s, yet it still retains a certain enigmatic quality.
Pratchett’s Colourful Chaos
Terry Pratchett took us in a completely different direction in his “Discworld” series.
In this flat world carried on the back of four elephants standing on a giant turtle (yes, you read that correctly), magic is a common and chaotic force, rather like trying to herd cats during a full moon.
Pratchett’s wizards spend more time trying to avoid magic, for fear of the unpredictable effects.
It’s like dealing with a highly caffeinated toddler—you never know what will happen, but it’s certain to be loud and potentially destructive.
The Wheel Turns
Now, let’s take a leap across the pond to our American friends. Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series presents us with a distinct magic system with a strong gender divide.
Women channel the ‘One Power’ far more safely than men, who risk madness and death.
It’s a bit like asking your partner to control the TV remote—sometimes it’s safer to just do it yourself.
Magic as Science
In more recent times, Brandon Sanderson has become the darling of logical magic systems.
His novels, particularly those in the “Mistborn” series, present magic as a science, with clear rules and limitations.
Sanderson’s “Allomancy” involves ingesting and “burning” different types of metal to gain specific powers.
It’s like a high-stakes version of choosing your breakfast cereal—each one gives you a different kind of boost.
The evolution of magic systems mirror our own changing understanding of the world.
As our knowledge has grown, so too has the complexity and logic of the magic in our favourite novels.
Yet, the sense of wonder remains.
After all, as Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Below you’ll find some books with unique magic systems from a range of fantasy sub-genres.
Whether you’re a fan of epic fantasy, or prefer your stories with vampires and werewolves, this list has something for you.
“Mistborn” by Brandon Sanderson
Starting us off, we have Brandon Sanderson’s “Mistborn” series. In this world, magic comes from ingesting bits of metal, a practice known as Allomancy. Better yet, if you can stomach a mix of various metals, you become a Mistborn, capable of wielding extraordinary power. If that’s not a unique take on “You are what you eat,” I don’t know what is.
“The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin
Next, we find ourselves in the world of “The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin. Here, magic is a force of nature, quite literally! The magic system, orogeny, allows certain individuals to manipulate thermal, kinetic, and related forms of energy to prevent and cause earthquakes. It’s like being a living, breathing weather app with the added bonus of earthquake alerts.
“Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” by Susanna Clarke
Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” brings us a magic deeply rooted in British history and folklore, with a library’s worth of fictitious books about magic. It’s a beautifully intricate system where magic is more about knowledge, study, and the ability to argue with a straight face that the colour of your socks affects the potency of your spells.
“The Poppy War” by R.F. Kuang
With R.F. Kuang’s “The Poppy War,” we delve into a magic system inspired by Chinese history and myth. Shamanism allows individuals to access the power of gods, but it comes with a price. It’s a bit like renting your mind to a deity with questionable intentions. Remember to always read the terms and conditions before signing on the dotted line.
“A Darker Shade of Magic” by V.E. Schwab
In V.E. Schwab’s “A Darker Shade of Magic”, we find not one, but four Londons, each with a different relationship to magic. The catch? Only the rare Antari can travel between them. It’s like having a magical Oyster card with unlimited travel. Just mind the gap between Red London and White London!
“The Black Tides of Heaven” by JY Yang
JY Yang’s “The Black Tides of Heaven” presents us with the Tensorate series, where magic, or the Slack, is manipulated through a complex system of elemental sigils. It’s a world where gender fluidity is the norm and the magic system is about as simple as quantum physics.
“Storm Front” by Jim Butcher
If you prefer your magic with a side of detective work, Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” series, starting with “Storm Front,” is your cup of tea. Here, wizard Harry Dresden solves magical crimes in Chicago. Magic is as everyday as a cuppa, but with more fireballs. Just remember, don’t tick off the faeries!
“Who Fears Death” by Nnedi Okorafor
Nnedi Okorafor’s “Who Fears Death” gives us a post-apocalyptic Africa where magic is a deeply personal and transformative power. It’s a harrowing but captivating journey. Warning: this book may cause an existential crisis and a sudden urge to explore your own magical abilities.
“The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss
In “The Name of the Wind”, Patrick Rothfuss gives us Sympathy, a magic system steeped in scientific principles. It’s the kind of magic system that would make Newton proud, if he wasn’t too busy being miffed about that apple.
“Assassin’s Apprentice” by Robin Hobb
Journeying into the realm of Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, we find the Wit, a deeply intimate and often stigmatised form of magic. It grants the user a telepathic link with animals, lending an altogether different perspective on the phrase ‘walkies’. It’s like being Dr. Dolittle, but with more political intrigue and fewer dancing pushmi-pullyus. Just remember, while talking to your dog about the state of the kingdom, don’t forget his regular scratch behind the ears.