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Those are the Rules – Magic Systems Showdown!

Once upon a time, in fantasy stories far far away, magic was a mysterious force that affected the characters and world in mostly unknown ways. If a character ever wondered how something impossible happened…magic. How’d we blip across an entire continent in mere moments? Magic portal. How does this steel sword burst into flames without melting? Magic weapon. How’d my head suddenly transpose with my buttocks? Transmorgrifying magic spell. (Or a particularly severe wedgie at the hands of a barbarian warlord.)

Nowadays, many fantasy novels have turned magic into, well, a form of science–in some ways creating a whole new form of physics or imagining alternate worlds where the laws of thermodynamics not only apply to entropy but also to the mass transference of shapeshifting dragons.

Let’s explore the properties of several fantasy novels that get downright textbook with magic systems and see which one is worth studying up on.


THE RUNDOWN: First in the Lightbringer series, The Black Prism conceives of a world where colored light is the main source of power. The story focuses on Guile, a world ruler known as the Prism, who is able to manipulate the entire spectrum of light, making him practically invincible. Yet this very power only gives him seven years to live, and his far-reaching dreams will require incredible sacrifice (and treachery) to see them accomplished before he dies.

THE CONTRAST: The Black Prism focuses as much on family dynamics and treacherous politics as it does the colorful (literally) magic system that the entire world is based on. Practitioners have to wear colored lenses that tune them in to their specific wavelength, and the Prism is as much a prisoner of his abilities and duties as he is empowered by them.

THE WAY OF KINGS – Brandon Sanderson

THE RUNDOWN: As is often the case in Sanderson’s stories, there isn’t just one magic system but several in place, which are often somehow related. In The Way of Kings, the story is split between three main characters–a Brightlord who must command an army in war without going insane thanks to disturbing visions, a scholarly apprentice with a secret agenda, and a slave who is only beginning to understand his true powers.

THE CONTRAST: This the first installment in a planned 10-book series by Sanderson, and it promises to be quite the unique epic fantasy saga. The world it takes place within is an alien one in many ways, and there are many fascinating details for readers to enjoy–from the powerful Shardplates and Shardblades to the crab-like creatures that serve as pack animals to the deadly tempests that reshape the landscape on a daily basis.

TALYN – Holly Lisle

THE RUNDOWN: Magic is the greatest weapon in war, and Talyn is one of its strongest wielders. Her country is locked in an endless battle with another, until the Feegash ambassadors arrive and negotiate peace–and Talyn happens to get romantically entangled with one of their diplomats. But the Feegash have their own strange form of magic, one which might prove the most dangerous threat of all.

THE CONTRAST: Talyn starts with a narrower scope, focusing on Talyn and her immediate family, and only expanding as she gets involved with her romantic interest. It doesn’t quite shoot for “epic” status, but gives deeper insight into her struggles on numerous mental and emotional levels, with the conflict slowly escalating from identity-crisis level to saving her family and country at all costs.


To start with the elimination process, let’s set The Way of Kings aside. Don’t think this reflects on the quality of the writing (superb) or the characters (engaging) or the world itself (vibrantly imagined). It’s more that, since it’s the first entry in a larger series that may be still a couple years out from seeing the second book, it winds up being incredibly open-ended and with more questions raised than answered. Once another sequel or two are in place, it may be more satisfying to re-engage with this world.

So, down to Talyn and The Black Prism. The one thing that might turn some readers off to Talyn is its amount of beyond-BDSM level of graphic sexual content. It gets pretty disturbing at times, even though it’s all integral to the story at large. It’s not for “shock value” or superfluous, but it may negatively impact the reading experience for some.

With The Black Prism, there is a great mix of tension with humor and technical magic workings with in-the-moment creativity. Guile’s character is highly complex, as is the world he lives within, and the main storyline wraps up well with plenty of room for further developments. And if you enjoy the first book, the second in the series will be out in just a few months!

Not all magic is created equal, but these three books at least show how powerful well-crafted magic systems can be while remaining utterly unique and compelling.

Now all we need is for someone to develop a system of magic based on wedgies,  wet willies, and noogies.

About Josh Vogt (21 Articles)
A full-time freelance writer, Josh Vogt has been published in dozens of genre markets with work ranging from flash fiction to short stories to doorstopper novels that cover fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. He also writes for a wide variety of RPG developers such Paizo, Modiphius, and Privateer Press. His debut fantasy novel, Forge of Ashes, adds to the popular Pathfinder Tales line. WordFire Press has launched his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor (2015) and The Maids of Wrath (2016). You can find him at He’s a member of SFWA as well as the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. He is made out of meat.

4 Comments on Those are the Rules – Magic Systems Showdown!

  1. The best magic systems are those that dispense with fire and lightning and instead focus on a more subtle and believable aspect. For example, Robin Hobbs Farseer trilogy is, in my mind, the bes exalt, demostratifng a power that cannot be denied, yet is. T s powerful hat one doesn’t wonder why the wizard simply doesn’t burn he villain to dust.

  2. Thanks, Josh.

    There is a tension between the highly detailed Magic system school of fantasy, and the more “magic is inherent chaotic” school that I also see trumpeted.

  3. Vic DiGital // July 10, 2012 at 9:09 pm //

    Not familiar with the Black Prism world at all, but the magic system sounds a lot like the Green Lantern colored light spectrum after they formalized that all the colors of the rainbow have a Ring Corps associated with them. I’m sure it is probably presented differently enough, it just SOUNDS like it would be too close to Green Lantern.

  4. JoshVogt // July 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm //

    I can understand how it might look like that on the surface, Vic. Let me reassure you they are worlds apart, and Black Prism won’t have you chanting “In the darkest day…” as you page through.

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