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!


  • Bill Capossere

    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.

    View all posts