Stina Leicht is a two time Campbell Award nominee for Best New Writer and a Crawford Award finalist. The first novel in her new Flintlock Epic Fantasy series, Cold Iron, debuted this July with Simon and Schuster’s Saga imprint.
by Stina Leicht
Although I’m a Fantasy writer, writing about magic in a simple, straight-forward way isn’t much fun. It’s been done. A lot. I played DnD. I know what “magic systems” look like. Combine these things, you get this result every time. Ta-da! However, I believe such consistency is a fantasy world conceit in the same way that viewing every character in terms of simple good or evil is a conceit.
Let’s back this up a bit. A few years ago, Barry Goldblatt, my agent, arranged a seminar about creating magic systems which was given by Holly Black. She stated that magic is power, and as such, it should warp your fantasy society accordingly. She also said to think about the ways in which power manifests itself in the real world, and that this would provide interesting possibilities. For me, the epiphany came when she mentioned that she liked to think of magic for her Curse-worker series in terms of money. And well… that was the approach I decided to take toward the magic in Cold Iron.
Of course things got muddy right away. For that reason, I suspect that’s going to make how I handle magic in Cold Iron a tough sell for many folks. Fantasy readers tend to expect magic to be a consistent, reliable recipe, but if Fantasy is making commentary about real life, then the story’s relationship with power should be complex, not simple. Humanity’s relationship to power is multifaceted, after all. It always has been. I don’t see that changing in the future. For example, consider money. In reality, money is not always a straight-forward equation. There is no equal distribution of wealth. It’s been attempted, but in the end, we still end up with Haves and Have-Nots. Getting money isn’t easy. We all know that anyone who claims they know the secret of how to get rich quick is probably a scam artist. Sometimes power is a necessary thing. Sometimes it’s misused. And sometimes a specific type of power simply doesn’t work within a given situation. That’s reality.
Therefore, magic in Cold Iron is murky. I let my characters have their own relationships with their power—just like everyone has their own relationship with money. For some, it involves disciplined ritual and focus. For others, it’s something they were born with in crippling amounts. Some characters understand how their magic works. Some don’t at all. Others have a more visceral relationship with magic. For soldiers, it’s steeped in blood. Healers approach it in a more scientific/philosophical way. Mind you, every kainen inherits a certain amount of magical talent. How powerful you are is based (in part) on what you’re born with, what you’ve learned, where you are in society, and what you do with that talent. Oh, yeah… and as always there’s a certain amount of luck involved.
That said, there’s always a price to pay and magic has limits.
I also wanted to allow for disbelief. In this, I must confess I’m playing a bit with the idea of faith. I’ve spoken with people who have sworn that magic doesn’t exist, and yet, in the same breath they’ll claim that they believe in prayer or miracles. They refuse see the similarities. To me, whatever you call it, it’s still magical thinking. I don’t judge, mind you. Everyone does what they must to get through life. The idea of comfort is not a bad thing, neither is belief. It’s when we demand uniformity of belief that the problems come in.
Ultimately, I didn’t want to impose an artificial uniformity upon my world. Plenty of authors explore that idea. I wanted to try something different. I wanted to experiment with complexity.