Fantasy Friday

Fantasy Friday #4: Magic Systems in Fantasy

Fantasy Friday

Fantasy Friday is my own feature, posted every other Friday. It’s pretty self-explanatory: I do a feature on something to do with the genre. Sometimes it will be a book recommendation, sometimes showcasing a book or series I’ve loved and other times it might be a discussion post. You’re more than welcome to join in with this feature, let me know if you make your own Fantasy Friday post!

Today I want to talk about: magic systems in fantasy.

Magic is a big part of many fantasy books and stories. However, if you’ve read lots of fantasy, you’ll know that it doesn’t always appear in the same way. Sometimes it’s big and showy, sometimes it’s very subtle. Sometimes it’s not even called magic. Today I want to pick out a few examples of magic systems in fiction and talk about them.

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

The obvious choice! Magic is the main focus of the Harry Potter series, and it is mostly a simple case of waving a wand and uttering the right words. In the wizarding world, children are taught in the ways of magic from the age of eleven – and in the UK they are taught at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (if it needs any introduction…). Of course, there are also wordless spells which are trickier to master, plus potions and various other magical aspects. However, in comparison to magic systems in some other books, the one in Harry Potter is very basic. This only makes it even more appealing, and is the cause of millions of children wishing they could go to Hogwarts (yeah I’m still waiting for my letter, twelve years too late). There is something truly… I want to say magical… enthralling about the idea of being able to use magic so simply and easily. I can’t express how, even now, I wish I’d gone to a school that just looked like Hogwarts, let alone taught the same subjects!

In a word: flamboyant.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The magic in Tolkien’s works is a bit more subtle than that in Harry Potter. Although there are wizards, or Istari, we rarely see them actually perform magic. Gandalf’s fireworks obviously involve a little, but we don’t see him using it. He creates a light from his staff in order to guide the Fellowship through the Mines of Moria, and he uses some magic to stop the Balrog from passing over the Bridge of Khazad-dum. In The Hobbit, Gandalf also shows that he is capable of bringing down lightning strikes on foes. However, he does not use magic often and it tends to be more practical. Within the Istari there is a hierarchy: blue, brown, grey, white, with Gandalf progressing from grey to white during the course of The Lord of the Rings. Despite an obvious presence of magic, Tolkien’s world is undeniably magical.

In a word: subtle.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind contains one of my favourite magic systems ever. Magic is called ‘sympathy’, and involves a sacrifice – a bit like alchemy in Fullmetal Alchemist. In order to create, you must give or destroy something. Often it involves the caster’s energy or body heat; somehow this system doesn’t quite feel like magic. It feels more realistic than just whipping up an object out of nowhere.

In a word: scientific.

The Abhorsen series by Garth Nix

Sabriel by Garth Nix Lirael by Garth Nix Abhorsen by Garth Nix

One of my favourite series when I was a young teenager, these books contain a very different type of magic: necromancy. As well as this, it’s not wands or staffs that are used, but bells. Unlike in Harry Potter, magic is a rare and difficult thing to use and very, very dangerous. In the case of Sabriel and Lirael, it also runs in the family.

In a word: scary.

Which books do you think feature the best magic systems? Have you ever read about any particularly unusual ones?

13 thoughts on “Fantasy Friday #4: Magic Systems in Fantasy”

  1. How about Mistborn from Brandon Sanderson- Incredibly over-explained. =)

    I tend to like mine subtle or scary if picking from your list (though I loved Harry Potter, so exceptions can be made). I don’t want magic taking over everything in the world, just to be real enough that it needs to be accounted for.

    1. I have yet to read Mistborn – it’s waiting on my shelf =D

      Yep, that’s why I loved the system in The Name of the Wind. I do think that there should be some effort or sacrifice behind magic (apart from Harry Potter because… reasons).

      1. Mistborn? I’ve finally read the first one by the way – I want to read the others but I’m waiting for the Kindle editions to go on sale!

  2. I found the magic (if it can even be called that) in Robin Hobb’s Farseer’s books very interesting – it’s called skill and it’s more like communication through minds, as via invisible cable. The skill can be used to affect and force, and acieve various goals. If I remember correctly there were also skill conflicts/fights, where a skill user is trying to enter another one’s head, but meets with resistance. Kind of telepathic type of magic, but very interesting to read about.

    1. I haven’t read any Robin Hobb either, but I also have some of her books waiting to be read =) I think the one I have is the first Farseer book actually! That system certainly sounds interesting.

  3. An old favourite of mine is Jack Vance – his Lyonese trilogy and Dying Earth books have a complex system of magic mediated through various creatures, the most powerful of hwo are called Sandestins. Vances’ worlds are saturated in magic – difficult, and dangerous to use, and often with an agenda of its own. Lyonese also includes the fey – wilful and capricious, giving with one hand and taking with the other. His magic is fantastical and mythic – some of my favourite fantasy.

    ANother great book is Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood. No actual magic in terms of spells – it’s a magic world, a place where the legends and ancient lore of our world lives on.

    1. I have Mythago Wood to read as well. I think that’s the sort of feeling I often get from Tolkien’s work – a magical world, but no obvious use of magic =)

    1. I haven’t read the Narnia books in so long that I didn’t even think of including it! Maybe that’s another series for my re-read challenge…

  4. I love the aura of the magical in Lord of the Rings even though I don’t consider it having a system, per se.

    Rothfuss is a good choice and I enjoy his system in the King Killer Chronicles.

    For me personally I think Brandon Sanderson comes up with the best magic systems. His systems in the Mistborn books and in the first Stormlight Archive book, The Way of Kings, are detailed and fascinating and internally consistent and just so darn inventive. I’d also recommend the magic system in the novella The Emperor’s Soul which is…wow!

    1. Yep, that’s why I see the magic as very subtle. You’re not really aware of it, but it’s definitely there.

      I’ve only read Elantris by Brandon Sanderson so far, but the first Mistborn book is waiting for me on my bookshelf =)

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