Thoughtful Thursday: Favorite magic systems

As Supreme Court Justice Potter1 Stewart famously said when asked to explain “magic” in fantasy novels:

“I shall not today attempt to further define the kinds of actions/abilities I understand to be embraced within that description, and perhaps I never could succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”2

Ok, he didn’t really say that about magic in fantasy novels. He was talking about pornography.3

But let’s pretend.

Now, some novelists don’t bother themselves to “further define” how magic works in their fantasy universe. They figure the reader knows it when they see it,4 and that’s good enough.

But other authors go to great lengths to “systemize” their magic, explain the rules and regulations, the can dos and can’t dos, the constraints and restraints,5 the words and rituals. Think of those allomancy tables in Brandon Sanderson’s MISTBORN books.

So, focusing just on that latter group, what are your favorite magic systems out there? And what makes them your favorite? Please mention the author and the book/series title along with your explanation. Also, try to avoid spoilers.

One random commenter with a USA address will win a book of their choice from our Fantasy Library.6

  1. Real name
  2. Mostly a real quote (but only mostly)
  3. Specifically, “hard-core pornography,” not the stuff you see in Cinemax films, middle-school boys’ lockers, and Bridgerton.
  4. A palantír here, an evil ring there…
  5. No, we’re not back to pornography
  6. No, not that kind of fantasy!

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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  1. I like the magic system in the Webmage series by Kelly McCullough because it’s a mix of mythology and technology. Sorcery is done through computer programming and the main character is a hacker.

  2. Noneofyourbusiness /

    The One Power (technically never called magic) in “The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan. Very detailed in how it’s conceived, with the geometric weaves needed for different effects, the description of weaves like gating, healing and balefire, and the different threads of Fire, Spirit, Air, Water and Earth, and the division of saidin and saidar. Sometimes it’s worked through a device called an angreal (to enhance channeling) or ter’angreal (to do various things).

  3. The magic systems in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence. You’ve got the divine systems where faith and sacrifice are banked, amplified and used

    Then there are the craftsmen and women where the soul is the basis of the power and you can use yourself into a zombie like husk. The soul is also currency for the majority of the world. Craftspeople are more like lawyers or IT (tell me Tara’s visualization tricks in the library weren’t like IT and data analysis).

    And yes, it is like necromancy. Ok, it is necromancy.

  4. The Distinguished Professor /

    Dungeons & Dragons and how it tells you which spells your character can cast based on their class and level, and how often per day. Based on the system of Jack Vance, where spells have to be memorized and re-memorized before use. Technically a roleplaying game, but there are Dungeons & Dragons novels too, such as those of Ed Greenwood, Elaine Cunningham, Tracy Hickman & Margaret Weis, and R.A. Salvatore.

    I do, however, have a fondness for how magic in “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin just goes by instinct.

  5. I found the magic system, if that is what it is, from Robert Jackson Bennett’s “The Founders” trilogy really cool and original.

  6. I’ve always liked one of the first magic systems that I came across which was one in Le Guin’s Earthsea where you have to know the true name of something.

    Also one of Diane Duane’s magic system that is used in her Tale of the Five series. It’s also word-based and the practitioner have to construct sometimes quite complicated structures in their head.

    Then there’s the also word-based one in Patricia Wrede’s Mairelon duology. You can cast in languages that aren’t your birth language. If you try to use your birth/native language, too much power is added to the spell and you end up with unforeseen consequences like a super bright light when you were trying to light a candle.

  7. Lady Morar /

    I like Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic, where besides practitioners of traditional “academic magic” there are people with ambient magic who have an affinity for something like weaving (Sandry), plants (Briar), weather (Tris) or smithing (Daja). Inspired by Pierce seeing the magic in Home Economics.

  8. Michael Voss /

    The magic system described in the 2nd Amber series by Roger Zelazny. Spells are ideally elegantly – and painstakingly – constructed, with one or more “lynchpin” words left unspoken as the spell is hung. Then the unspoken word or words are used to trigger the spell when needed. When a user runs out of hung spells, they must then resort to calling up raw power and directing it at their target.

  9. John Smith /

    I’m reading the Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey. It seems to have pretty interesting magic, which apparently is pretty common in Los Angeles, with actually gifted people and a lot of wannabe magic poseurs. Our hero went to Hell and has some sort of magical key embedded in his heart. There are angels and demons and weird empty-space types that are very, very dangerous.

  10. Jillian /

    The magic system in the grisha trilogy by Leigh Bardugo is stunning. I just feel like it’s pretty well thought out. Nothing compares to Brandon Sanderson, of course. The Stormlight Archives are so impressively planned and systemized.

  11. Trey,if you live in the USA, you win a book of your choice from our stacks, or, as Bill calls it, our Fantasy Library.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your choice and a US address. Happy reading!

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