When building a magic system, authors are faced with a balancing act. If they restrict their magic too much, then it won’t be cool and interesting. That defeats the whole point of magic! On the other hand, if an author doesn’t put enough restrictions on magic, then it allows the characters to easily solve every problem. That second scenario is a lot more likely, as magic is by definition something that doesn’t actually exist, so authors have trouble planning for how it will affect their stories.
That’s why so many popular stories have totally unrestrained magic, with heroes who can destroy armies at a glance, end famines with a wave of the hand, or even program their VCR through dark and profane rituals. While these problems are annoying to encounter in the wild, they make great learning opportunities for storytellers.
The mages of N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series are incredibly powerful. They can cause city-destroying earthquakes with a thought or freeze large areas solid as they pull all thermal energy into the ground. The book makes a point that nearly all mages can do this. Contrary to what you might expect, it’s small-scale work that’s a mark of skill and power. Any novice can open a new Grand Canyon. It takes skill and experience to freeze a single person solid in a crowd.
This extreme level of power for every mage causes two main problems. First, this is an oppressed mages setting, where anyone with magical talent is treated like the lowest filth if they aren’t killed outright. Every mage being uber powerful makes that premise even less credible than it normally is, as it’s notoriously difficult to oppress people who can kill you and everyone you love with a single thought.
At the very least, most oppressed mages stories try to create a scenario where muggles could theoretically keep the mages down if they all got together and worked at it, but Broken Earth doesn’t even bother with that. Even a single mage could easily defeat entire armies of non-magical humans. The best explanation is that there’s a special group of people who are immune to normal magic,* but that’s putting a Band-Aid on a severed artery. Even if a mage can’t directly pull the heat from someone’s body, they can pull away all other heat and give their enemy hypothermia, or just open up a sinkhole underneath them.
The second problem is that the Broken Earth eventually wants to put its mage-protagonists up against enemy armies, and the only way it can do that is to completely forget about the mages’ abilities. The first time this happens, we’re told the mage can’t just sink a bunch of enemy ships because they have those people who are immune to magic on board. Okay, but have you considered pulling all the heat out of the surrounding water and freezing the ships in place? It seems worth trying.
Another time, it doesn’t even have that thin veneer. An enemy army threatens the protagonist’s town with death, but instead of destroying them with magic, the protagonist decides to go out herself and negotiate. She doesn’t even send a proxy; she intentionally puts herself into stabbing range. She is then very surprised when her vicious enemy stabs her.
Buffy is an episodic show, with each week’s plot only vaguely connected to the bigger season arc, if at all. This is fitting, since each episode also seems to introduce a new kind of magic, each more powerful than the last!
We rarely get a detailed explanation of how magic works in Buffy, partly because it’s a TV show and partly because the writers probably didn’t know themselves. Sometimes magic is done via psychic powers, sometimes it requires ritual spellwork that anyone can do, and sometimes you need to have an inborn talent to do the ritual spellwork. Literally no one knows what the rules actually are.
What everyone does know is that magic in the Buffyverse is incredibly powerful. Even the low-level stuff, like Willow and Tara hurling a snack machine with their minds, is enough to be overpowered in a fight. Later on, Willow can summon lightning bolts and shield herself from harm, and this is before she becomes the god-being known as Dark Willow.
The only limit Buffy offers is the vague idea that doing too much “dark magic” will become addictive, which is Willow’s main arc in seasons six and seven. This is already a bad limitation, since the possibility of addiction isn’t much when lives are on the line. I’m pretty sure most of us would smoke a cigarette if it were the only way to stop an oncoming axe murderer.
And of course, this limit isn’t even consistent. There’s no indication that Willow and Tara’s telekinesis is a problem, nor is it mentioned at the end of season four when our heroes do a ritual that turns Buffy into an unstoppable juggernaut.* At the end of season seven, Willow does a mega spell that awakens all the potential slayers at once, and it doesn’t seem very dark.
It is impossible to count all the problems our heroes should have solved with Willow’s magic. Perhaps even worse, most of these abilities seem to come from nowhere, with little or no foreshadowing. This makes it difficult to take any conflict seriously, since it always feels like Willow can produce some new spell from thin air if the writers find themselves in a corner.
“Wait a minute,” I hear you saying. “Yoon Ha Lee’s novel Ninefox Gambit is scifi, it doesn’t belong in an article about magic systems. Also, you smell bad.”
While you are certainly correct, there’s a reason I put Ninefox on this list: its technology is absolutely wild. In addition to standard stuff like teleportation, FTL drives, and energy shields, Ninefox is a world where certain technologies only work if other people in your area of space are using the right calendar system. So if your ship operates on the Gregorian calendar and you warp to a sector where the Jewish calendar is popular, your vessel could just fall apart around you. No explanation is offered for this, which is probably good, since nothing could possibly explain it. The upshot is that I feel completely justified in calling it magic.
Enough exposition, back to the critique! Like Buffy, Ninefox is a story where new magic is introduced every time the hero needs to get out of an otherwise impossible situation. How do we beat the villains’ unbeatable shields? With a new weapon no one’s ever heard of before. Don’t worry, it comes with a lot of cool description. Once we’re inside the enemy fortress, how do we take it over? With fancy robots called “threshold winnowers,” which do… something. But don’t worry, we’re programming them to do something slightly different than they normally would, and that will make us win with fewer civilian casualties, somehow.
Ninefox doesn’t create quite as many new types of magic as Buffy does, partly because a single novel doesn’t have as much time as seven seasons of TV.* Nor is the book’s technomagic as blatantly overpowered, though that’s partly because we don’t understand what it does. Even so, the problem is the same. There’s little satisfaction in any of the hero’s accomplishments because they have so much magical tech at their disposal, and it’s hard to take threats seriously since the characters can produce new wonder-devices seemingly at any time.
This problem is also a lot harder to excuse in a novel than an episodic TV show. In shows like Buffy, there’s an understanding that each episode is to some extent a self-contained story, and the lack of a narrator makes explaining magic a lot more difficult. Finally, production constraints often mean that problems can’t actually be solved as the author originally intended. That doesn’t give TV shows a free pass, but it does make their mistakes feel less serious.
Novels have a much higher standard. They have more time to explain their magic, a narrator to do it, and are a single, unified story. This helps make up for the fact that prose stories don’t have pretty special effects or charismatic actors. When a novel starts throwing out a grab bag of random supernatural powers, it feels like something has gone horribly wrong.
Unlike previous entries, Jacqueline Carey’s Starless doesn’t have any trouble limiting the magical powers its characters have access to. Those abilities all have specific uses and none of them break the plot, though one is called “Pahrkun’s Wind,” which sounds a lot more like a fart joke than it should.
No, the problem here is with the gods themselves. They give our heroes an urgent quest with vague instructions where the fate of the universe is at stake, which sounds par for the course at first. But unlike most fantasy stories, the gods of Starless aren’t distant and unknowable. They’re walking around in the real world. They talk to humans all the time. You can go visit them if you want to.
This puts the gods in the role of the hooded old man at the tavern, whispering just enough foreshadowing to get the heroes interested, but not enough to be useful. The story needs this because huge stretches of it are about figuring out what the characters should do next. It’s not until the very end that the main character realizes that the whole problem can be solved by a magic item he’s had since the beginning.
You’ve probably spotted the problem by now: this doesn’t match the gods’ motivation. They want the heroes to succeed on the quest. It doesn’t serve their interests to give incomplete instructions and hope the heroes can figure out the rest in time. What if the heroes’ riddle-solving skills aren’t quite up to the challenge? Then everyone dies, including the gods.
It’s possible the gods are supposed to be so different from humans that we can’t possibly understand their plans, but their goal to survive and return to the heavens is very understandable, so that’s unlikely. The only other explanation is that the gods have Rube Goldberg powers and can predict the future so accurately that they know the heroes will be okay. But in that scenario, nothing the heroes do matters, and the story becomes really boring.
Most fantasy stories are careful to put barriers between the gods and the heroes to prevent this exact problem. Some succeed better than others, but Starless is the first novel I’ve seen to do away with those barriers entirely. Carey may have been trying to stand out by breaking the divine magic mold, but it turns out that mold was around for a reason.
There’s a lot happening in Susanna Clarke’s nearly 300,000-word doorstop, but one of the major arcs is our heroes trying to prove the value of their magic. Early in the story, Norrell has a rough time because none of his parlor tricks can impress the gentry of London, forcing him to make dark deals with a malicious fey. Later, Strange is deployed with the British army to fight Napoleon in Spain, and he’s hard pressed to think of anything useful to do.
From this kind of plot, you might expect that these bumbling magicians have fairly limited power. You would be wrong. Their deeds include but are not limited to animating hundreds of stone statues, controlling the weather, conjuring illusionary naval fleets, creating roads from nothing, creating endless food, and much, much more.
Are you confused yet? Good, because I certainly was when I read this story. The main characters have seemingly godlike power, and yet they can’t get anyone to take them seriously? It’s incredibly jarring to see Norrell go from filling an entire town with magic to fretting about how he’ll convince a patron of his abilities. We’re supposed to believe that this is due to restrictive English social etiquette; not only is that completely unbelievable, but it vanishes as soon as Norrell resurrects a dead lady. Why are aristocrats impressed by necromancy but not any of Norrell’s other incredible powers? No one can say.
Strange’s story is even more annoying. He goes to war under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, otherwise known as the Duke of Wellington. Wellesley was one of the foremost military minds of his age, but we’re supposed to believe he can’t think of any use for weather control on the battlefield. He certainly wouldn’t want to freeze the French soldiers in their camp or drench their gunpowder in torrents of rain, no sir!
This is all an incredibly contrived attempt to give our heroes problems to overcome. Norrell can’t impress his guests, so he makes a deal with a spooky fairy for resurrection magic. Strange is brushed off by Wellesley so he can have some spinach before finally figuring out a spell that will really impress the duke.
Contrived conflict is nothing new, but it’s rare that you see it at the scale found in Strange and Norrell. It’s a story where characters of immense power have trouble with the tiniest of problems. In theory, that could provide some interesting contrast, but Clarke doesn’t give us the context to make it believable. Instead, we’re shown a pair of giants and then told they’re struggling to shift a pebble.
This problem persists into the later chapters when the action heats up. Our heroes finally have to deal with that pesky fey, but it’s difficult to get invested in the conflict because it seems like either of them could produce some new spell and solve it in a heartbeat. Not only are they seriously overpowered, but we have no context for what they’re actually capable of.
I talk a lot about how sexist The Wheel of Time’s magic system is, but don’t get me wrong, it also has a lot of technical problems. Most magic systems with too few limits are intentionally vague. The storyteller hopes we won’t notice how arbitrary and overpowered the magic is if they don’t explain it too much. In The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan takes a different approach.
Every element of WoT’s magic is explained in detail, sometimes excruciating detail. We’re told exactly how much power each character can use, how the five elemental branches of magic interact, not to mention more lessons on weaves, flows, and shields than I know what to do with. Even in the first book, before any of the viewpoint characters can use magic, we have a strong understanding of how it works.
That understanding is what tells us that Wheel of Time’s magic is incredibly overpowered. Even modestly powerful mages* can easily summon magics to destroy groups of enemies in fiery death. Not only that, but Jordan’s mages can keep flinging fire and lightning bolts all day without breaking a sweat.
But wait, there’s more! Mages can also restrain enemies without harming them, heal the most grievous of wounds, and sense nearby evil, because why not? Some mages can also tell the future and travel into parallel worlds, but that doesn’t usually come up enough to be an issue. No, the main problem is around fighting.
There’s a lot of fighting in The Wheel of Time, and mages are way OP at it. There are only three ways to defeat a mage: a perfect ambush, overwhelming numbers, or a more powerful mage. Some mages are so strong that those first two don’t even work on them. The only real limit on magic is, like with Buffy, the vague threat that a mage might get addicted from using too much. That’s not a real limit in a life-or-death fight scene.
But Jordan still wants his non-magical characters to matter, so how does he manage it? Mostly, he forgets the magic rules that he previously spent so much time establishing. For example, in book three, our heroes are attacked by some evil creatures while eating dinner.* These characters have a powerful mage with them, but she’s not the focus of the scene, so Jordan writes a line about how the enemy is now “too close” for her abilities. That way, the other characters can get to work with their swords, axes, and chair legs.
This scene acts as if a massive fireball is the mage’s only option. But just in this book, we’ve seen her create powerful melee weapons perfect for close-quarters fighting. And in previous books, we’ve seen that mages can immobilize their targets with no risk of friendly fire. This problem extends to larger battles as well. WoT’s main character is such a powerful mage that he can disintegrate entire armies with a thought, and on top of that he has items that amplify his power even further. The books host several large battles where it seems like the soldiers should have stayed home and let the mages sort things out.
One thing I’ve learned from several years of content editing is that authors don’t like putting limits on their magic. When I ask about it, they often respond with confusion. Magic is super cool, so why limit it? But if you don’t, your magic will quickly overwhelm your story, leading to broken plots and contrived conflicts. These limits should be worked into the foundation of your magic system, not slapped on as an afterthought. That way, your story will have a robust enough world to support your awesome plot, especially if you’re planning a long series. Don’t worry, there will still be plenty of cool magic for readers to enjoy. A little supernatural power goes a long way.
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