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  1. #1
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    Magic in Fantasy genre

    This topic is sort-of a spinoff from my last post. You may want to check it out to get the idea of what I'm talking about...

    What are everyone's views about magic systems? Do you prefer the mysterious, vague notions in Tolkien's works, or the in-your-face blatancy of Jordan?

    I don't mind either one, so long as it fits the context of the story. If the story is a society where people left and right are throwing magic around, yet the author means for magic users to be strange and unusual, I feel the author loses his message. By the same token, a novel without any magic is hardly fantasy and more historical fiction. Personally, I have always been a fan of the mysterious, undefinable use of magic in stories. I think that a man casting a huge fireball at a dragon is going a bit too far. Still, there is always something to be said for a knock-down, drag-out wizard's duel. I like magic a lot, but not when it's overdone.

    I like Robert Jordan's magic system in Wheel of Time, but not how he employs it (he makes it too common). The One Power is basically the ability to warp the threads of reality- some people have the talent to take the threads of power (that hold everything together) and maniupulate them as they will. There are no spells, so to speak, but there are common uses. I can't say that I have ever seen this idea before, so kudos to Jordan for being unique.

    I liked the rune system from the Death Gate Cycle. It was an interesting take on the idea. magic is not based necessarily on latent power, but on practiced, learned skill based on shapes and their locations.

    Tolkien's is less defined, so it is harder to classify it at all except to say that I enjoyed the mysterious nature and "rarity" of its use. I find it fascinating. Magic is innate, but the use of it must be restrained lest it be overused and corrupt. Tolkien's underlying magical theme is that magic gives ultimate power, but since no one was made to wield ultimate power, it ultimately corrupts the user. Only those wielding it in peaceful, blessed fashion can escape its ill effects. By using it for evil (that which is was never meant to be,) it is squandered.

    I haven't read enough Goodkind to comment too much on his system except to say that Magic is a very basic element- though people may not like to admit it or even be aware of it, it plays a vital role in their lives. I'm not too sure about this system since I've only read one book by Goodkind, so I won't evaluate it positively or negatively.

    Eddings is a pretty straight-forward wizards-and-sorceresses-casting spells system. Not a big fan.

    Dragonlance is perhaps the most blatantly bad (from what I'm told.) I am not familiar enough with Dungeons and Dragons to
    say for a fact, but from what I've seen, the magic system in the books relies strictly on the game mechanics, which I suppose is okay if you like the game, but pretty sad if you do not. I did not.

    The Magic in Terry Brooks is often item-related except through the druids and evil villains (who surprisingly ALWAYS are wielders of secret powers in this genre). Good system, but I got tired of the overall story after a one or two Shanarra books.
    (I won't even comment on the embarrassingly poor Magic Kingdom books)

    Mary Stewart's magic system is (I believe) fantastic. It relies on mysticism and paganism. It is incredibly potent, but elusive enough to make the overall feel mysterious and strange.

    Song of Ice and Fire- I loved that Martin had the guts (and talent) to write a successful fantasy novel without any real magic in it (the first book of the series). It gave the series a great feel and a sense of originality. When he incorporated magic into the second book, it obviously pleased fans. I thought he did an excellent job of introducing it but keeping it believable in the context of the first book. Magic has a potent impact in his setting because all factions do not have access to it. The one that does has a huge advantage despite its military deficiencies. Very original and intriguing.

    How 'bout everyone else?
    What do you look for in terms of magic in books? What makes a good magic system? What ruins a magic system? Which systems were terrible? Which systems are well done? Do you know of any good systems in bad books? Bad systems in good books? Let's see some of your thoughts posted here for the rest of us!

  2. #2
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    Good, this discussion deserves its own topic. I'll briefly restate some of my points from other threads and maybe hit on a new idea or two.

    I like magic systems in fantasy when they pertain to the plot, or are somehow integral to the story. I don't like magic when its included just for the sake of having magic, or simply because 'its fantasy, so its got to have magic'.

    Good magic systems must have rules, limitations and cosequences; or else a wizard is god; and should be able to resolve any problems by page 2

    On the same topic, the rules, limitations and consequences of a magic system should be revealed to the reader by exploration, actions and story-lines; not by an experienced wizard sitting down and telling the young wizard what they can and can't do. Show me, don't tell me. I just can't stand it when a magic system's rules are revealed that way. I also don't like vague reasons why magic can't be used in a certain way (ie, the time and time-again overused reasons that 'using magic to do this will upset the balance of powers'; or 'it could lead to unforseen consequences'.....that's fine and dandy, but give me examples!!) When an author gives examples of the rules/consequences/limitations of the magic system; it usually leads to developing the back-history of the land, or leads characters on adventures that help define their traits that much more. When a system is revealed by massive exposition or dialog dumps (or isn't revealed at all); it makes me think that the author didn't think there system out; or simply has magic there for the sake of being there.

    I usually feel that 'less magic is more magic'. The more magic is included in a novel; the more chance the author has of makeing a mistake in their rules & consequences; or creating a god-like character. Just like a good horror-movie, keep the killer off the screen, so that when you actually do show him it is effective.

    Stories where magic is commonplace (where everyone has it, or everyone knows about it), the system must be that much more defined, which is usually a difficult task. (Except for 'shared worlds' like any of the D&D settings, where it is presumed the reader has extensive knowledge of the system beforehand)

    Now, some comments on a few author's styles:
    (Note: again, I'll pretty much exclude D&D type settings because it is presumed you know the magic system)

    Eddings - perhaps one of the chief violators of my 'show don't tell rule'. Seems to me he had a god-like wizard going around always explaing why magic can't be used to do this or that; and alot less showing. Also seemed like several of his exposition dumps explaining the system used the 'vague' reasoning to it

    David Farland/Wolverton Runelord -- here was a nice magic system, well-thought out, pretty original (to me) dealing with transfering traits (strength, intelligence, etc) from one person to another. The consequences and dangers of this are explained in story, not in info dumps.

    Jordan - I think I pretty much agree with you wastra. I like the ideas he started with, but his execution of the system into the story is really begining to suffer some problems. (Just how many god-like characters are running around in WoT now?) Even though all these super-powerful characters are running around, what are they doing half the time? Looking for objects to make them even more powerful!!! Its slightly out of hand.

    All in all, I would say that most authors have an average magic system. They tend to excel in one area (rules & structure), but then fall flat on their face in others (magic info-dumps), or vice versa. I've read a few which have really exceptional ones.

    I think a good story can overcome a bad magical system (afterall, as a reader, what I'm interested in is the characters in a story). A bad story really won't be helped out by a good magical system.


  3. #3
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    This is an interesting topic. I never really thought about magic when I was reading a book it is just there, it is part of the story. I can see however that how the system works would really effect the book. I also really liked the rune system in the Death Gate Cycle. I thought it was a different way to look at magic. One thing I thought about RJ's system in WoT is that it kind of reminds of "the force" in Star Wars. That was the closest thing I could think of when trying to describe it to my frind who hadn't read the books. It is a force that is present everywhere and those with the ability can use that powere to affect changes in the world. Presonally I like magic it is one of my favorite things about fatasy.

  4. #4
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    I prefer the quiet ‘natural’ magic that you would find in the likes of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon series. Druids and priestesses of our history were classed as magic, and I feel because of this link with our past this type of magic is more feasible. The same reasons I feel make LoRS magic work. Folklore and myths and legends help make the magic in fantasy work that much better.
    I agree that if you make a magic too common (like in WOT) that it becomes more of an “okay so what”. I think that magic must be for the few not everyone (almost) in the novel.

  5. #5
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    One of my favourite magic systems that you guys have overlooked is in the Earthsea Quartet by LeGuin. Basically it says that if you know the true name of something, you have power over it. this stops the absolute power / wizard as god thing, as it's impossible to find the names of everything. It did get a little bogged down when she introduced equilibrium as a way to make wizards consider their actions.

  6. #6
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    Greetings. I wonder if anyone ever thought about connecting magic with music. It seems a good way of making magic if a character must sing the spells and therefore not just have a power, but be a good singer and know about music. It also opens a lot of space for a story to evolve (the bond between the music and magic, history of music, history of magic, etc.)

  7. #7
    For music as magic...see just about any fantasy that has a bard, or Alan Dean Foster's Spellsinger series, or Lackey's writing....

  8. #8
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    Janny Wurts in the second Mistwraith Book "The Ships of Merior" also has magic being produced from Arithon's talent with music.

  9. #9
    Modesitt's Soprano Sorceress is also about music.

  10. #10
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    If you are looking for Music based magic, you should really check out Rhapsody by Elizabeth Haydon. The Second book in the series Prophecy is due out in a few weeks.

    Also Songs of Earth and Power is great, deals with Music based magic, and features a dual world like the Covenant series by Donaldson. It is written by Greg Bear, who is known more for his Hard SF stuff, but he really wrote a gem with this one. Originally published as two books, Tor recently (within the last couple of years) re-released them as a one book omnibus. If you see it in a bookstore--BUY IT AND READ IT!!

  11. #11
    Dragonlance is perhaps the most blatantly bad (from what I'm told.) I am not familiar enough with Dungeons and Dragons to
    say for a fact, but from what I've seen, the magic system in the books relies strictly on the game mechanics, which I suppose is okay if you like the game, but pretty sad if you do not. I did not
    Yep, it was based on the D&D magic system. But it was done so very badly. While the D&D system is notoriously lacking, it's not that dull.

    Anyway, incorporating magic is one of the most difficult things. Look at Feist: In his later books horribly failing to balance magic (the Pug syndrome: "I have it but can't use it"). I have yet to see a consistant higher magic world with closely described and balanced magic. Jordan is quite good, limiting magic through the "taint" and the "forgotten art" (old concepts though), but we'll see how it ends.



    [This message has been edited by shevek (edited May 24, 2000).]

  12. #12
    Senior Member Giarc's Avatar
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    Music and magic. Wasn't that the first system used in fantasy? In the first 'book' of the Silmarillion....the creation of middle earth was by means of the music of the Valar.
    Tolkien used magic well I think: sparingly and with a sense of mystery. This book seems to reveal more about it's nature than LOTR or The Hobbit. Since Wastra didn't provide an overview of Goodkind's system perhaps I should quickly add my impression of it.
    In Goodkind's world there are two forms of magic: additive and subtractive. Additive magic is limited to creative actions, subtractive limited to destructive. Additive magic can be used to kill by creating a weapon (for instance), it can create illusion, and it can heal. Basically anything where something is being brought into being, or added to. It cannot be used to 'remove' life force etc. Likewise, subtractive magic can be used to remove things and obviously has major implications for directly killing things. Very powerful and far rarer than additive magic. In fact, only Richard Rahl, Emporer Jagang, and (to a far lesser extent) Kahlan retain subtractive magic abilities. Subtractive magic cannot be used to heal or create things.
    Overall, magical abilities are a very rare condition (magic is slowly dying it seems). Additive magic users are the most common form. But it is those who wield both additive and subtractive magic who truly have power. Historically there were more wizards but the ability was almost wiped out in the ancient war of the wizards.
    The biggest unresolved question is what type of magic does the witch Shota possess? It doesn't seem to fit within his system *shrug*
    Overall he does it well I believe, although the Shota thing is a niggling question that does detract from the overall use. Though it also adds an air of mystery which is good.

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