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Magic In Fantasy: Alternative Magic Systems

This is the forth article in our series on Magic in Fantasy. To read the earlier articles click the links below.

Part One: Introduction
Part Two: Real Magic
Part Three: Ancient Magic

fortune by Sergey-LesiukFinally we’ve come to the most exciting stop on our magic safari. Real magic and ancient systems of magic are exciting enough, yet nothing can top systems that defy all logic (because magic has elements of logic, honest!), take our imaginations to an all new level, or simply conjure up magic that renders even the most veteran of fantasy readers all atremble with delight.

It is under the banner of “alternative magic” that anything not suggested or explored in the previous articles rallies its troops and holds its ground. At first glance, some systems might not fit under this heading, however, when scrutinised it becomes clear that whilst some of these systems have elements that adhere to another category of magic, their loyalties lie unswervingly with their alternative comrades.

We’ll jump straight into the deep end and make a gargantuan sploosh by suggesting that J.K. Rowling’s magical systems in Harry Potter fall undeniably under the ‘alternative’ banner. Now, I can hear what you’re saying, “But…magic wands!” and possibly even, “Hey! She uses magic words!” and if you’re being extremely pedantic, “Um…magic potions aren’t alternative!”

All fair observations, however, we did mention a little more examination than surface scrutiny. Sure enough, the wizards and witches in Rowling’s world may indeed use wands, but the difference lies in the fact that each wizard or witch is “destined” for a particular wand. Furthermore, these wands are magical in their own right. Crafted from only the finest and most magical of materials, the wands hold anything from dragon heartstrings to unicorn hairs at their cores, and are carved from magically complimentary woods such as elm and ash.

Harry Potter Color by RobertAtkinsIn addition, whilst Rowling’s magic uses ‘magic words’, these aren’t as basic or as simple as mere utterances that conjure spectacular effects. Rather, the words must be learned, (intonation is everything) practised, and mastered before the desired effects are produced. Simply knowing a word and giving a flick of the wand isn’t sufficient: talent and will and good old fashioned hard work make the difference between poor, good and exceptional magic wielders.

Finally, the notion of horcruxes is not only original, but an imaginative way of presenting a powerful villain who is supposedly unbeatable (we’re talking one-hit-kills here, people), yet giving him a weakness. Voldemort can be destroyed, although much like Sauron and the One Ring, it’s not going to be easy, and expect to bleed a little (or a lot!) to get it done and reach the happy ending.

Moreover, if we’re willing to label any magic system as ‘alternative’ based on the norm, versus little-used techniques, in modern fantasy fiction, the notion of magic words and magic wands is so outdated, that Rowling’s essentially built on something old and trite, adding enough difference and imagination, that she’s created something entirely new and fresh. Dressing up old tropes, themes and ideas in brand new robes is precisely what all the best and most innovative fantasy writers do.

Spellwright (cover)Whilst we’re entertaining magic words, let’s look at Blake Charlton’s Spellwright. We’ve already touched on his world briefly, yet there’s much more to be said about just how unique and original his magic system is. In the world of Spellwright, and the upcoming Spellbound, magic is language. Literally.

Not only can words be worn as tattoos and written in books, they are also tangible things that a human can choke on when caught in the throat. The way these magical languages appear differs depending on which specific language we’re addressing, however, it’s safe to say that the words of these languages are physically visible. When a spell is weaved there might be rings of text; when an item is imbued with, or created by magic, there might be words and letters visible across its surface; if a person casts a spell, it’s essential that the words are formed fully and correctly.

Herein is where the plot of Spellwright hinges: Nicodemus Weal is a cacographer (essentially a dyslexic Spellwright) and therefore misspells magical language and text. Blake Charlton created a very original system of magic that can—at first—be difficult to envisage. Oddly, the way I fully grasped the magic of this world, was through an anime/manga series called 07 Ghost. Magical rune-like words are cast and these are visible in the air, and this is how magic is cast. Sounds very much like the magical language in Spellwright, doesn’t it? Of course, Charlton’s system is more complex than this, but the imagery helped to clarify just what I was expected to imagine—and it worked!

The Book of Transformations (cover)Keeping with our foray into magical words and language, it’s only right to consider the Book of Transformations in Mark Charan Newton’s book of the same name. The book is—obviously—text. However, it is evident that the book itself is magical: whether the text itself, or simply the language in it. The book makes things happen. This isn’t necessarily unusual, until you consider the plot around the book. As The Book of Transformations is relatively new, we’ll tread carefully around spoilers as though we’re dancing in the woods avoiding rabbit snares, so don’t cover your eyes just yet.

Usually magical books are artefacts with divine or unknown origin. Ordinarily they contain spells, or at least magical techniques. The Book of Transformations might contain both, yet it’s difficult to tell, given the mystery surrounding the book. But what we do know is who wrote the book, and that it has a twin. Essentially, the “who” regarding the penning of the book, is what makes it different to other magical books: its author was a normal human, who simply discovered he could create. The book appears to be a by-product of this process. It appears that the book is only magical at all, because someone knows how to use it.

The book itself is a tricky area of magic that could claim membership to multiple magical categories. Regardless, its mention was a neat and tidy route to considering the rest of Newton’s magic. Or lack thereof, as the cultists would have it.

Alchemy by JonHodgsonThe “magic” in Newton’s world actually claims to be nothing of the sort. In fact, the cultists who utilise “relics” and “ancient technology” would likely cast you a dirty scowl if you overused the M word around them. They don’t like it. Not only do they deny the devices and forcers they use are magical at all, they claim that everything they do wield as a result of their research is merely lost technology.

This is all sounding a little bit science fiction, by my book. Perhaps this is what makes Newton’s magic system so unusual in regards to fantasy fiction. Nonetheless, the world surrounding this magic system is undeniably fantasy (we could entertain post-apocalyptic new-world, or alternative dimension theories…but we won’t!) and therefore, the system is something a little bit special.

Newton’s magic takes a turn for the extra special—again, in The Book of Transformations—when he takes the enhancements bestowed upon Commander Lathraea’s Night Guard, and goes a step further, creating what we can only dub as “fantasy superheroes”. Then we have the exceptional magic/technology he introduces through his female protagonist, Lan.

It’s no secret at all that Lan is a male-to-female transwoman, and that her transformation was brought about by cultist techniques. Whether you’re a fan of Newton’s work or not, you have to admit, the magic exhibited here is pretty darn swanky. It’s also exceedingly unique and best of all, it allows Newton to explore the issues he feels are relevant and important to the modern political landscape (an article on “politics in fantasy” is forthcoming).

Voidwielder MTG by chasestoneThis gender reassignment process brings about a link to “magical science”. We’ll call it such because whilst the end result can be achieved through medical science, the process is much smoother, quicker and generally neater than through a realistic science route. Of course, not all “magical science” has to be realistic—hence why it’s not merely “science”.

In other words, something that sounds scientific would fall into this sub-category. Initially, two magic systems spring right to mind: Brent Weeks’ The Black Prism, and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn settings.

The magic in Weeks’ Lightbringer series hinges on light and how it is split into colours. Magic wielders—or “drafters”—draw power from whatever colour of light they can control, as well as a substance called “luxin” from this light, and use it. It sounds fairly scientific in that the whole magic system is based on light and its properties, but it is entirely fanciful in that each colour has a different “personality” if you will, and as a result, most drafters will develop the ability to draft according to their personalities.

Of course…the issue that the magic-through-light system actually affects a drafter’s personality or mood complicates the matter. In fact, a lot of things make Weeks’ system very deep and complex, from “breaking the halo” (no longer being able to handle or control the “magical” light) to being a superchromat or simply being able to draft in one or more colours (bio- or polychrome). The addition of a ruling figure who can draft in all colours (a Prism) presents a magic system that is both fun and fascinating. It also makes it so that magic itself is not a quick-fix. After all, when the sun sets…then what?

2012 FEB Magic - Mistborn (cover art)Different again, is Sanderson’s Mistborn magic. Based on the supposed magical properties of metal, the system of magic sounds vaguely scientific when compared with magic brought about through wands or rituals. Sanderson’s allomancy and feruchemy appear to be scientific words in their own right. Add “mistings” and “mistborn” to the mix, and we’re definitely in fantasy territory, however.

As with other alternative magic systems, what is so fascinating about Sanderson’s metal-based magic is that it is different. Different enough that, as a reader, the imagination is piqued. Occasionally it is around the magic system that an entire story hinges: think of Spellwright and even Elspeth Cooper’s Songs of the Earth.

Without the magic system to misspell, there would be nothing to write about involving Nicodemus Weal, and it is because of his ability to hear a song laced with forbidden magic, that Gair is hunted and imprisoned by the Church Knights—without this, his story could not have begun. In fact, Cooper’s magic system might prove to be another that takes an obvious, well-aged concept for magic (think of magical chants in fairytales), and transforms it into something fresh and exciting for the modern fantasy audience. Donner - Die Chroniken von Hara by FetschA brand new debut, with an intriguing magic system, Songs of the Earth is definitely at home at the “alternative” magic mansion.

There are obviously a thousand other magic systems out there, each different from the next, even if only by a mere sentence of detail of description, and whilst some will appear similar at first, usually their execution is different enough that what at first seemed identical, soon appears very different and unique in its own right.

Magic is an integral part of fantasy fiction and for readers, it creates a deeper, richer world of fantasies and adventures, whilst for writers, it’s an excuse to get really, really creative and paint the world in your own, unique colours, emblazoned to the nines and ready to march.

The crux of it all is that magic is fun. Furthermore, magic is, unsurprisingly, magical.

Title image by Fetsch.

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Alternative magic systems are so cool… Another fun article, Leo. Thanks!

  2. Avatar Debbie says:

    Horcruxes are hardly original: D&D has been using Phylactery-guarding Liches as ubiquitous enemies since the 70s, and the Russian folk tale of Koschei the Deathless was put to print in the 1850s.

  3. Avatar Craig Eddy says:

    This is not from a published book, but might be of interest. Arthur C. Clarke made the comment, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Well, if that’s the case, then any simplified magic might be indistinguishable from technology.

    Components: (listed in the order that they are trained into humans)
    1. Ability to link to others, mentally for communication and monitoring (1 more on that, later)
    2. Connection to power (energy)
    3. Protective shield.
    4. Ability to create objects, including food and clothing, apparently from nothing. (2)
    5. Able to translate (move) objects anywhere you know
    6. Able to translate (move) yourself anywhere you know.
    7. Able to translate (move) yourself to an alternate universe.

    1 The ability to make a mental link is critical, since all the training and monitoring for this ‘technology’ is done through that link. This also weeds out the ‘bad guys’. People that can’t make the mental link fall into two groups — those that have been told and believe that such things aren’t possible, and those that have something to hide, and thus are too closed in on themselves to make the connection. In other words, sociopaths (bullies) need not apply.

    2 The creation of the personal shield preceeds making things simply because making things is the next step in using shields. The formula, E=MC^2, implies that energy is fast mass, and mass is slow energy. Shields are a point in between, and take on whatever characteristics the practitioner wants them to have. And yes, that means food, clothing that can be changed instantly, computers and phones, and even cars.

    Drawback:
    Translation to the alternate universe will bring on a judgment — actually a review of your life to the moment you translated, showing you, viscerally, what harm you have caused (to others, for instance) that was not justified by defense of self or defense of others. Practitioners of this ‘magic’ must moniter the balance between harm and no harm to avoid being crushed by the judgment.

  4. Avatar Just some guy says:

    The color magic isn’t that original. It’s like the one in the greenlantern comics. Each colour with a specific emotion.

    The catalyst is a ring of power, though. Well, interessting, nonetheless.

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