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[GUEST POST] Mitchell Hogan, Author of A CRUCIBLE OF SOULS, on Magic Systems: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

When he was eleven, Mitchell Hogan was given the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to read, and a love of fantasy novels was born. He spent the next ten years reading, rolling dice, and playing computer games, with some school and university thrown in. Along the way he accumulated numerous bookcases filled with fantasy and sci-fi novels and doesn’t look to stop anytime soon.

His first attempt at writing fantasy was an abysmal failure and abandoned after only one page. But ideas for characters and scenes continued to come to him and he kept detailed notes of his thoughts, on the off chance that one day he might have time to write a novel. For ten years he put off his dream of writing until he couldn’t stand it anymore. He knew he would regret not having tried to write the novel percolating inside his head for the rest of his life. Mitchell quit his job and lived off dwindling savings, and the support of his fiancé, until he finished the first draft of A Crucible of Souls.

He now writes full time and is eternally grateful to the readers who took a chance on an unknown author.

A Crucible of Souls won the 2013 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

Mitchell lives in Sydney, Australia, with his wife, Angela, and daughter, Isabelle.

Magic Systems: The good, the bad, and the ugly (well, the good anyway…!)

by Mitchell Hogan

Every fantasy reader has an opinion on magic systems. What one person likes, may not be to another’s taste. Some people state a magic system has to have rules, but I think the only real key is: Anything goes, as long as it enhances the narrative and doesn’t jolt the reader out of the story. You have to make a reader believe in your magic!

As for me, magic systems are part of what drew me into reading fantasy when I was young. An original system of magic which is interesting and inventive is a big draw card, and it’s one thing that appeals to me, and, I hope, to my readers. My favorites are quasi-rational systems where there are rules, and we generally know what characters are capable of – and perhaps more important, we know what the characters aren’t able to do.

A post on all of my favorites would be too long, so I’ve cut it down to a few. I’ve left out many well known ones (like the Wheel of Time, the Mallazan Book of the Fallen, the Kingkiller Chronicles, the Lightbringer series — of course they are favorites!), as I wanted to include as many varied systems as I could, and there’s no way I could cover everything in one post. Without further ado, let’s get into it!

My favorites:

Chronicles of the Black Company (by Glenn Cook): But this doesn’t have rules I hear you say… At least, they aren’t well defined in the books. True, but nevertheless it stood out to me, as it is extremely entertaining. Most of the powerful/talented sorcerers are all broken in some way, even deranged. And some are even able to fly around on magic carpets…what’s not to like about that? Lesser magicians can employ powerful spells, but it takes them a much longer time to do it. This is one of the keys to the system: It’s the speed at which you can perform magic that makes the difference. Magic is presented as being completely unknowable to non-users, so the system is a mystery. But it doesn’t feel unrealistic — and what happens with the magic is definitely engaging.

Master of the Five Magics (by Lyndon Hardy): Five magic systems which are logical and believable — Thaumaturgy, Alchemy, Magic, Sorcery, and Wizardry. All five have their own detailed rules, and in my opinion each is good enough to deserve its own series. There’s Thaumaturgy – governed by The Principle of Sympathy (like produces like), and The Principle of Contagion (once together, always together). Alchemy – creating potions from recipes (which are jealously guarded), where each step has a chance at failing. Magic – where through repeating insanely complicated rituals you can create magical items. Sorcery – controlling minds using the Rule of Three (thrice spoken, once fulfilled). And Wizardry – demon summoning through fire, where more powerful demons require burning exotic materials, but then you have to control them… Hardy’s systems are original and interesting, and they strike just the right balance between rules and power.

The Wizard of Earthsea (by Ursula Le Guin): Naming magic is one of the oldest in Earth’s history, and there are many variations. Usually, once you know the name of something (a thing, or animal, or person), you have control over it (to various degrees). Le Guin placed a high emphasis on the relationship between power and responsibility. Arguably, the plot of the last book is based on the cost of the protagonist’s use of magic.

The Coldfire Trilogy (by C.S. Friedman): Sorcerers manipulate a vast energy that comes from the planet itself, called the Fae. There are four types of fae: Earth, Tidal, Solar, and Dark. They are often unpredictable, and even using the “safest” form of fae, Earth, can go horribly wrong if there is an earthquake or volcanic eruption. Perhaps it was what Friedman did with her characters and the magic which spoke to me, but I couldn’t leave this one out. The magic system is undeniably unique, and awesome.

Mistborn Trilogy (Brandon Sanderson): Allomancy, “burning” metals inside your body to fuel physical and mental abilities?! Count me in… Allomancy is distinctive and interesting. For example “burning” steel gives the ability to “push” on nearby metals, while “burning” pewter enhances physical abilities. And before anyone comments: yes, there are actually multiple magic systems in Mistborn, but Allomancy is the most prominent. Complicated and intriguing, this magic system is one of the best out there.

A Crucible of Souls, book one of the Sorcery Ascendant Sequence (by me, Mitchell Hogan, and I’m trying to avoid spoilers here!): I wanted a system where people had an innate talent for different types of sorcery, but knowledge and materials were limiting factors. People born with a “well” can be trained to access sorcerous power, and wells are essentially a bridge between their reality and another. Sorcery is usually performed by fashioning an object from hard wearing materials, in order to both guide and withstand the corrosive forces. But the more durable materials and exotic alloys are also expensive and difficult to use. Metallurgy and metal work comes into play a lot, especially casting. And of course, I thought of a way to break the system… The protagonist, Caldan, focuses on traditional sorcery but also experiments with combining clockwork mechanisms with sorcery, and he creates various useful automatons throughout the series.

There are many, many more interesting and fantastic magic systems out there. But here, at the end, I’ll state that a system doesn’t have to be all that original if the author puts their own unique spin on it. Sometimes, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you just have to put chrome rims on it! In a tasteful way, of course…

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