the art of magic in fiction

merlinThe other day I was sitting around drinking beers with a friend and talking about magic.  Specifically, we were discussing the abuse or misuse of magic in fantasy writing.  It is my theory that, among other things, the success of a fantasy book, aside from all the basic prerequisites of good fiction (i.e. plot, character development, etc.) – requires that magic is done well.

Alas, in much of what passes for fantasy these days, magic is not done well.  It is often used too much, and it is even more often the most unimaginative element of the story next to the characters (often cheap Gandalf knock-offs residing in cheap Middle Earth knock-off worlds).  Indeed, aside from the formulaic character development and overuse of standard fantasy races – elven ranger, curmudgeonly dwarf, human fighter, barbarian priestess, and so forth – which read like D&D characters more than actual people, the sad state of magic in fantasy is probably the worst thing about the genre.

Magic should be magical.  That’s one thing oft-forgotten in the fantasy world.  A spell is much more than a fireball or the summoning of denizens of the deep to do a sorcerer’s wicked bidding.

One excellent example of magic done right is Susanna Clarke’s excellent Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a Victorian-style novel which tells in great detail of an alternative Britain, full of long-forgotten magic, devious fairies, and ambitious and often jealous scholar-magicians.  The magic itself is enticing, dark, and wild – even though the magicians who attempt to wield it are more akin to stuffy academics than battle-mages.  Indeed, the magic in this book shifts between a whimsical sort of illusion, and chillingly haunting witchery.  It is something that we, and even those purportedly in control of it, cannot fully understand.  It carries a threat.

Another fine example of magic is in Bernard Cornwell’s Winter King trilogy, a work of historical fiction as much as it is fantasy (Arthurian tales so often are).  Magic is more a phenomenon of the superstitious in these books.  Merlin’s ability as a magician is based more on his contemporaries willingness to believe that he can ensorcel them than on any real spell-casting prowess.  And yet, at the end, one is left wondering if indeed it was all just illusion or if there really was something magical at play – if coincidence can really explain away the inexplicable.  That – to my mind – is good magic, full of mystery which leaves a lingering doubt, and a lingering belief in the extraordinary.

In any case, I just get weary and bored of most fantasy fiction.  The good ones – George R. R. Martin’s books, Tolkien, Jonathan Strange, and yes, Harry Potter – are diamonds in the proverbial rough.  Perhaps I’ve grown too picky.  I’ll tell you one thing – the Wheel of Time books are just plain awful….

Anyone have some reccomendations for a poor soul in need of a good book?

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42 thoughts on “the art of magic in fiction

  1. “That – to my mind – is good magic, full of mystery which leaves a lingering doubt, and a lingering belief in the extraordinary.”

    The mystery is what makes the magic. It’s the *NOT* knowing, the not understanding. More often than not, when I have seen magic done poorly, it’s because it was *EXPLAINED*. Whenever it was something done in the shadows, behind a curtain, whispered, it was something that would allow the suspension of disbelief. Whenever the author sat down and explained that, no, The Force is really the excretions of Midichlorians, I, as a reader (or viewer, in that case), deflated.

    When magic is done right, I’ve found, it’s because very little beyond limitations was explained. The conflicts that involved magic revolved around whether this mage was greater than that one and the best chapters were where we found out. (Or, of course, whether this mage was greater than this particular obstacle.)

    If you explain too much, the magic ceases to be magical.

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  2. Elizabeth Hayden’s trilogy is good. Glen Cook’s Black Company is uneven at the end, but the first three are great. For something a little like Cornwall, Dan Simmon’s The Terror and for science sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic his Ilium/Olympos is just amazing.

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  3. Magic should be magical. That’s one thing oft-forgotten in the fantasy world. A spell is much more than a fireball or the summoning of denizens of the deep to do a sorcerer’s wicked bidding.

    Harry Potter

    You’re mad!

    Recommendations: Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. Stephen R Donaldson’s Mordant’s Need.

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  4. Okay – Harry Potter does everything else so well that it counts. Besides, the magic in that book is essentially a world apart from the normal world – I’m not sure how to express it, but it works. Perhaps it is the school that works so well. Or perhaps it’s good because of the mystery in the plot itself. Either way, good stuff.

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  5. I second the recommendation for Kay’s “Fionavar Tapestry” and I agree with the inclusion of Harry Potter. And I also share your distaste for nearly all fantasy fiction, despite the fact that I love and defend fantasy as a legitimate genre. I have eagerly devoured everything that C.S. Lewis and Tolkien have written on the subject of fantasy; it seems that the gift for true “sub-creation,” to use Tolkien’s phrase, of a fantasy world is a rare gift.

    Steven King’s “Dark Tower” series began as among the great fantasy series of all time, but began to lose interest for me around book five. It got way too scattered, derivative and narcissistic. But I still highly recommend the first three books, as well as related books such as The Stand and The Eyes of the Dragon.

    As a girl, my absolute favorite series was “The Enchanted Forest Chronicles” by Patricia C. Wrede. They are quite lighthearted, and I am not sure how well they would appeal to adult males. But to this day I still find them to be amusing and delightful, and I think they possess all the characteristics of good fantasy.

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  6. Richard K. Morgan’s “The Steel Remains” is a nice start to his new fantasy trilogy. (And if you haven’t read his Takeshi Kovacs books you should do yourself a favor and pick them up, too.)

    I’m not so sure it’s always about “magic should be magical” so much as practitioners of magic in a book need to act as though they’re doing something extraordinary and somewhat out of the grasp of other people. I think the reason you find that magic development/handling is important in a fantasy book is because well…it’s a clutch. When magic is used poorly it’s more that there’s a plot whole that’s masked with the use of magic, rather than an inherent problem with magic handling in it of itself. (There’s plenty of circumstances where a book starts out handling something in a promising manner then turns around and stabs you with it later when they’ve hit a snag in the plot.)

    So one could perhaps instead say that bad handling of magic doesn’t really contribute to bad fantasy fiction, rather it’s a symptom of a poorly constructed one to begin with.

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  7. That’s a good point, Nob. It can certainly be an easy way out – or a “clutch” as you put it (or a crutch?) I’ll have to delve deeper into this line of thought….

    Thanks to everyone (so far) for the book recommendations!

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  8. The Dresden Files books (by Jim Butcher) are funny, light, and fluffy… more of an airport-appropriate book than anything else.

    If you’re looking for something to cleanse one’s palate between “real” magic books, these shouldn’t bug you *TOO* much…

    I’ll ask my beloved life partner for her advice (she prides herself on being able to answer this particular question).

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  9. “she prides herself on being able to answer this particular question”
    *coughcough* I what?? Actually it’s more that it’s the kind of question I enjoy kicking around until someone finds a book they wouldn’t otherwise have found….

    Anyway, I will try to come up with a more thorough list later but for now – have you tried going back to some of Tolkien’s precursors? I’m specifically thinking of ER Edding’s The Worm Ouroboros books and the writings of Lord Dunsany. If you don’t mind the clunky Victorian writing there’s a lot of wonder in ’em. Also, more Victorian-STYLE but a little easier (not much!) on the modern reader, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy is absolutely wonderfully brilliant and weird.

    I will come up with some more modern suggestions when I’m at home with access to my books-read-list and library!

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  10. Seriously, you enjoy Harry Potter but hate the Wheel of Time series. I mean, not everyone can enjoy that series (fairly long winded at times I’ll admit, other issues exist of course) but it is waaayyyy more interesting to most fantasy readers I’ve every talked to than Harry Potter.

    /end rant :D

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  11. Maribou – thanks! I’ve been eying Gormenghast at the local used book store. I think I’ll go buy it… (ah, my reading list has expanded!)

    Dallas – the Potter books, to me, are just delightful fun. Wheel of Time is just boring! ;)

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  12. By the way, Penn State University Press has a really good non-fiction Magic in History series. Not credulous “how-to” books, but more anthropological, “what-they-were-doing-and-why”.

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  13. OO OO OO!
    The Bartimeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. YA but YA that should go straight on the “classics” shelf (and for the 11-up crowd). More complex & funnier than Harry Potter (which I too greatly enjoyed). Magic is produced by tormenting djinn, some people have magic and they treat the ones who don’t like crap, the main human character is pretty much a dick, and the narrator is a SNARKY djinni with a colorful past. Seriously three of my favorite books ever!! (Starts with The Amulet of Samarkand.)

    Um, I really like Kage Baker’s The Anvil of the World, mostly for the witty dialogue and interesting setup more than for the magic aspects, although those work out fine – but the prequel House of the Stag is also excellent (although harder to get into at first, I found) and focuses more on magic stuff in an innovative-but-somehow-fitting-with-tradition-and-not-sounding-like-a-manky-RPG kind of way (‘course, I’m a huge Kage Baker fangirl in general, so I can admit I may see these through rose-colored glasses.)

    Sarah Micklem’s book Firethorn was very very good, very much NOT traditional fantasy even though it’s set during a war and the main character is a herbalist-type-woman, and it stuck with me for years such that when I found out the sequel is about to come out I started squealing with glee (kind of embarrassing but at least my coworker is used to me).

    I think I should stop now:)

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  14. I’ll second the Richard Morgan books (and for the awesome science fiction work ‘Altered Carbon’).

    I have yet to find a better fantasy series than R. Scott Baker’s ‘The Prince of Nothing’ series.

    That said, he offers the careful reader an explanation for his world’s magic that nevertheless does not spoil the power of it.

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  15. I loved the first 2 books of R. Scott Bakker’s trilogy & am looking forward to the third once I get out from under my reading queue…

    That said, my GOD are they bleak, and also I’m not sure if you hate Jordan you would like them. Much tighter & better written but also very concerned with minutiae….

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  16. I’m not a huge reader of fantasy (I’ve read C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and the Harry Potter books), but I really enjoy Neil Gaiman. It’s not what I think of as “typical” fantasy, and in many ways is more like modern myth, but I can’t get enough of it.

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  17. I second Freddie re: Diana Wynne Jones. The Chrestomanci books (of which Witch Week is the third, but they’re not so linked you have to read them in any particular order) are especially fabulous, and the most recent of them, The Pinhoe Egg, was beyond fantastic. I also highly recommend Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy, particularly Lirael.

    The most lyrically beautiful (try reading only the first paragraph of each of her novels, especially the latest ones—her ability to craft gorgeous sentences is profound) fantasy writer I know is Patricia McKillip. I could list virtually all of her novels (we own 20, though some in omnibus) as examples of magic that is mysterious, enchanting, and delicious. Od Magic, The Alphabet of Thorn, and The Beach at Sealy Head are great places to start. Well, and the Riddle Master trilogy.

    One more, and then I’ll stop: Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. It is the only novel that includes vampires that I’ve ever liked, and it is one of the books we’ve given away most often as a gift to our fantasy-loving friends.

    , my husband *adores* Patricia Wrede, esp. Enchanted Forest, and have you read the short story about the Frying Pan of Doom? Exquisite!

    >note to self: effusive much? gah!

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  18. Oh, heck. I forgot Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, which I don’t know if it has magic enough, but is the most gut-bustingly hilarious fantasy novel I’ve ever read. [Though I’m open to alternate suggestions.]

    Fardles. On the flip side (realistic and potentially depressing, but with incredible magic, characters, and detailed world-building) see Melanie Rawn’s two Sunrunner trilogies. Vast, expansive, and the most believable descriptions of war that actually kill *or* maim your favorite/beloved characters.

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  19. Well – this has far exceeded my expectations. Thanks to everyone for the many, many suggestions. I hear a library and perhaps a used bookstore calling my name….

    Neil Gaiman is very good, I agree. I’ve read a bit of Terry Pratchett, too (Sourcerer was funny) but not Good Omens. I’ve also read the first Bartimeus book, which I thought was wonderfully witty. But a lot of these I haven’t read, so that’s fantastic.

    Now the trick is to stop reading so many blogs, news articles, and serious stuff and get back to basics…

    ;-)

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  20. Thank you for the assessment of magic in fantasy literature. I also struggle to find good fantasy. I tried picking up Terry Goodkind’s “Wizard’s First Rule”. I made it to about page 300, telling myself along the way “Stick with it, it is bound to get better”, only to put it down because of trite plot, painful dialogue (all the characters sounded the same) and very, very shallow characters, The world was not engrossing and I found the villian to be completely cliche.
    On the other hand, a few months ago I finished T.H. White’s “The Once And Future King”. One thing is for certain, many of the pop-fantasy authors springing up today cannot write like that!

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  21. The second is even better. Indeed, the use of magic (although the system has not been altered) is better. Third one I have yet to read, but look forward to once there’s a big enough dent in this degree to warrant reading fiction…

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  22. James Clemans is really good. A little dark and a bit gruesome at times, but the stories are excellent. Try The Banned and the Banished series: Wi’tch Fire, Wi’tch Storm, Wi’tch War, Wi’tch Gate and Wi’tch Star. (I don’t know what the apostrophes are about, but the names of the races are littered with them)

    His second series: The Godslayer Chronicles is also very good and a bit lighter than the first. However, it’s been about three years since the last (ending on a cliff-hanger) and there’s still no news on when the next is coming out.

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