The Top 5 Greatest Magic Systems Ever

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One reason I haven’t been blogging with much regularity lately is that I’ve been working on a book, a fantasy novel. (Also: I am a lazy puke.) One of the great things about writing a fantasy novel is you get to roll your own magic system. Because every fantasy fan I know has always harbored the secret belief that nobody has ever gotten magic quite right. But they know how it would really work. I’m no different.

I’m not going to lay out the magic system I came up with, because that would be boring, but here are the ones I took as my models. They’re not the most famous, and the books they appear in aren’t the Greatest Fantasy of All Time. But as magic systems go, they’re my favorites. Why, I don’t really know. There’s just something very satisfying and self-consistent about them. (But mine is better.)

1. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I don’t see how anybody can ever think about magic the same way again. The sheer energy with which the late Gygax and co. codified the practicalities of spellcasting just boggles the mind. The levels, the spell components, the precise details of the effects. They took something as abstract and mystical as magic and crammed it into a precise grid of rules and stats, without dissipating its essential awesomeness.

2. Larry Niven’s Warlock stories. Anybody who knows me or reads this blog knows that I am an obsessed Niven fan. For all I know I may be among the last of my kind. Obviously he’s known for his Known Space books, Ringworld in particular, which are masterpieces, but I’m equally fond of his too-brief experiments with fantasy. His hero, the Warlock, lives in a prehistoric period when magic still existed. He is the first of the magicians to figure out that magic depends on a finite resource, mana, which is being used up. When it does, all the magical creatures will die, Atlantis (which is only stabilized with tectonic spells) will slide into the sea, and the world will revert to mundanity. Niven takes a hard-headed physicist’s approach to spellcasting — you say the words, you assemble the materials, and you get your spell — which makes everything feel startlingly real, and it’s amazing the pyrotechnics he wrings from this unshowy stuff. “What Good Is a Glass Dagger,” the story of a lengthy wizard’s duel, is probably the strongest entry, but I have a soft spot for the very plangent “The Wishing Game,” featuring the last surviving djinn in the world.

3. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. Ged, the wizard in question, learns to cast spells at a wizard academy on the Isle of Roke. He does this by learning the true names of things — once you know a thing (or a person’s) true name, you have power over it. If I have a quibble with the Earthsea system, it might be that it never seemed all that hard to do magic — you learn the names, you have the power, ballgame. But it’s a beautiful idea elegantly and evocatively executed. I wonder if Rowling read about Roke before she came up with Hogwarts.

4. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. Jordan’s books get a lot of guff. I have given them some of that guff. They’re too long and there are way too many of them and they’re kind of derivative. But he worked out some really cool ideas about the way wizards work. Men access one half of the One Power, women the other. The male half has become tainted, causing male wizards to go insane. The women are organized into a cool kind of nunnery/SWAT team called the Aes Sedai. You get the feeling Jordan really knew what spellcasting felt like. Lucky bastard.

5. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The problem with magic systems is that if they’re too systematic they just don’t seem that magical anymore. Magic isn’t mysterious like religion — you don’t pray for a fireball, you cast a fireball! — but it’s not like technology either. You’re not pushing a button. What’s unbelievably great about the system in Jonathan Strange (can’t…type…whole…title…) is that it seems like there are rules to it, but you can’t quite figure out what they are. It’s coherent and self-consistent but also scary and mysterious at the same time. Here’s a mini-excerpt where Strange casts his first spell:

The instructions called for a mirror and some dead flowers, so Strange and Henry lifted a mirror of the wall and laid it upon the table. The flowers were more difficult; it was February and the only flowers Mrs. Redmond possessed were some dried lavender, roses and thyme.

“Will these do?” she asked Strange.

He shrugged. “Who knows? Now … ” He studied the instructions again. “The flowers must be placed around, like so. And then I draw a circle up on the mirror with my finger like this. And quarter the circle. Strike the mirror thrice and say these words … “