Scott Lynch, author of the upcoming releaseThe Republic of Thieves, provides a rundown of standout magic systems in fantasy.
Magic is thickly woven into the
tapestry of fantasy, but among all the chants and grimoires and flashing hand
gestures, only a select few “systems” of fictional sorcery really stand out to
me for their vividness, their creativity, and their intrinsic fun. Here’s a
quick glimpse at a few of my favorites.
the sorcery of Deryni Rising, by Katherine Kurtz, because most of what’s
presented is tiny and subtle. The ability to steal few minutes of memory. The
ability to quietly lessen or worsen an injury. The ability to break locks.
Though the magic in the series eventually grows bigger, I can’t help feel that
it’s at its most interesting when restrained. Imagine the havoc these
relatively minor powers could cause in our own world in malignant or careless
hands. Fireballs and lightning bolts are all very well, but few authors ever
ponder the potential of minuscule magic arts.
Vance’s Dying Earth, in contrast, features sorcery that is baroque in
conception and dire in consequence. Magic spells are the legacy of earlier,
more orderly ages, and as the sun shudders through its final epoch they become
ever more precious, ever more twisted, and ever more tattered and mysterious.
Vance’s work directly influenced the famous spell memorization mechanic of the Dungeons
& Dragons game, but was far weirder and wilder than the game’s dry
balance could ever allow.
McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and The Riddle-Master of Hed
both feature resonantly traditional systems of magic based on the power of
names, words, songs, and all the lore derived from these things. Like Tolkien’s
wizards, hers are beings that grow in power through comprehension of the hidden
natures of the things around them.
Zelazny’s taste in magic was akin to his taste in narrative and character, by
turns devastating, sly, sexy, melancholy, and unreliable. Strange sorceries
abound in his work, though I would especially recommend Changelingand
its sequel Madwand; the techno-magical conflict of Jack of Shadows,
and the deeply layered weirdness of The Chronicles of Amber.
Bear’s Eternal Sky sequence features wizards who approach their arts
with a proto-scientific view of the world, something like the orderly but
incomplete articulation of the classical Greek elements. Wizards cannot simply
bend the world to their will, but must apply their will to valid leverage of
those elements. Breathable air cannot simply be wished into existence, for example.
Oxygen molecules must be borrowed or compounded from the surroundings via the
processes of Fire or Water, though of course none of the wizards have any idea
what a molecule is.
I am also
fond of the well-done Liavek anthology series, in which anyone may
attempt to gain sorcerous powers by binding their own luck into a ceremonial
vessel on their birthday. To say that the process is risky is an
understatement. I’m running out of room, but would also like to mention Michael
R. Underwood’s Geekomancyand Celebromancy, which feature magical
arts derived from contemporary social trends, and N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred
Thousand Kingdoms, in which magic is just the way I like it: varied,
inventive, and never bogged down with too much explanatory