My Five Favorite Fantasy Magic Systems

Last week, I had the pleasure of doing a setting study about Wheel of Time’s magic system, and, knowing that many WoT fans claim it is one of the better systems of the fantasy genre, it got me thinking. I liked Wheel of Time. The complexities of channeling, the differences between saidin and saidar, the weaving… all of that was really cool, but amidst all the other world-building that Jordan did, his magic system rarely wowed me the way some of the other things did.

So, if Wheel of Time did not quite manage to ensnare me with its magic, what did, you may ask. And I answer: without further ado, allow me to tell you my top five magic systems, and what made them stand out. Allow me to direct you to my Five Types of Magic Systems post for a brush-up on some of the terms, should you need it.

5. His Dark Materials

I will admit, it has been so long since I read this series that I might’ve forgotten about it had it not been for its recent TV adaptation. The magic system for the protagonist is incredibly simple: all characters of this world have a daemon, their soul in an animal form. But an ever-present animal magic is not all this world has to offer. There are witches with their elemental magic and gift of prophecy, and armored bears whose armor is their equivalent of a daemon. More than that, the series also includes a multiverse magic, where each world has different rules and where the magic varies from world to world.

It is, I think, the multiverse that makes HDM such an alluring magic system. One of the protagonists of the second book, Will Parry, comes from a world that feels very much like Earth. The only magic to be found is the mere possibility of stepping into a different world. The series let the reader fall in love with Lyra’s world, with its magic bears and its animal companions, and then suggested the possibility that the reader, who lives in a world like Will’s, might just be able to go see it for themselves.

4. The Magicians

There are some things not to like about the book series, but I watched the TV adaptation and read the first book, so I know it well enough. The series has a modern witchy feel, using spellwork magic that often requires certain magical ingredients, an actual spell–usually in some dead or very old language–and the use of gestures. What makes the magic system original is twofold. Firstly, it is rare that a magic system requires very specific finger and hand movements, the compiled list of which are called Poppers, in order to make the spell work. Secondly, every spell is affected by Circumstances. The time of day, the phase of the moon, the altitude at which the caster is located, all affect the “math” of the spell.

The series also makes use of multiverse magic. Travelers–Magicians who can teleport–can reach these different worlds without help, but what artifacts allow for transport often send them to the Neitherlands, a place of many fountains, where each fountain takes a person to a different world.

What’s interesting about the magic system of the series is that it seems like simple Spellwork magic at face value. But, rather than trying to blend a few different magics together to make his unique Spellwork system, Grossman went the other way, diving into the core concept to limit its uses and ultimately make it a costly endeavor.

3. The Graceling Realm

It’s rare to find a superpower magic system in high fantasy, and rarer still for the characters to sidestep falling into a superhero/supervillain category. Certain characters had a magical Grace that allows them to do something better than anyone else. There are certain restrictions to how Graces affect the world; it seems that either it affects a person’s physical attributes or else it deals with a person’s perception, but in those two categories, a Grace can be literally anything. Excelling in fighting or being able to hold one’s breath for a long time are examples of the former. Mind-reading in its wide array or giving good dreams is an example of the latter.

Ultimately, what I like about the Graceling Realm series is that although it had a relatively basic concept as a magic system, Cashore allowed for certain Graces to be useless. Not everyone made use of their Grace. For some, there was nothing they could even do with it. Some people just had to live their lives marked as a Graceling, ostracized for their useless magic. Although none of the Graced main characters have useless Graces, the fact that they are addressed gives the magic system as a whole a well-rounded feel.

2. The Night Circus

The magic system of the Night Circus is most certainly a softer, undefined magic system. I have not read the book in quite some time, but out of the various elements of the story, its magic was my favorite and the thing I remember best. The nature of the characters’ magical abilities aligns it more with Superpower magic than Spellwork, as they all have their own acts within the circus.

It’s worth noting that, like with other elements of a novel, a magic system does not exist in a vacuum, and that its presentation is just as important as the actual gears and cogs of how the system works. The Night Circus is written to entrance its readers in the same way that the circus-goers are entranced, to awe and inspire. Believability is left outside the gate. This tactic wouldn’t necessarily work with all magic systems, but it certainly works for Morgenstern.

1. The Raven Cycle

This series has the benefit of being fresh in my head, but even so, the series writes its magic in a beautiful, tangled way. Stiefvater blends the psychics of the series as Superpower/Spellwork magic systems, as the magically inclined characters all have their own specialties. It toes the boundaries between having a mystical setting and having an actual, concrete magic system, but the characters’ interaction with Cabeswater, the legitimacy written into the psychic readings, and the magic battery that is the ley line all add up to something resembling a magic system probably more Spellwork-inclined, ultimately.

Like with The Night Circus, I find that although I do enjoy a harder magic system with an intriguing twist, nothing makes me fall in love with a magic system faster than when it is written to inspire, when it is show as mystical and inexplicable. With the Raven Cycle, nothing ever goes as expected when the magic system gets involved, yet it never crosses the line into incredulity. As far as magic systems go, I think this is the one I comprehend the least, and I think that sometimes that’s just the thing you want to see in your fantastical story.


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