It’s kind of a big deal in fantasy.
It’s probably the only feature of fantasy that genre nerds would say it’s hard to call a book fantasy without. Wizards? Plenty of fantasy books without wizards. Dragons? Plenty without those, too. Castles, kings, pseudo-feudal-system? I can name ten or twenty books without those just off the top of my head.
But magic? Academically, it’s probably possible to have a fantasy book without magic (depending on the definition you use), but it’s also incredibly difficult to think of examples where people have done it in real life.
So, naturally, there are a lot of arguments over the best way to use magic in books – and they generally fall into two camps, or ends of a spectrum (idea shamelessly stolen from [link]Brandon Sanderson[/link]). Magic as Wonder and Magic as Tech.
Currently, general favour falls in the “Magic is Tech” end of the camp – this feeds into a lot of my theories about the current relationship of fantasy to science fiction. Magic A is Magic A, in other words (Warning: TV Tropes Sinkhole of Doom). Magic has set rules that can’t be broken, or can only be broken in incredibly specific circumstances. A classic example is Fullmetal Alchemist: magic is attached to specific runes in alchemy circles, and all alchemy requires specific circles except if you’ve done a certain thing and trust me you do not want to do that thing. Nobody breaks those specific rules, and the eventual solution to the conflict is found (in Brotherhood, mostly, but in the First Series too, to an extent) through superior knowledge of those rules.
On the other side of the spectrum, there is Magic is Wonder, which is now mostly discredited. Classic example? Gandalf. How does Gandalf’s magic work? He uses his staff. How does his staff work? Who knows and who cares? Why doesn’t he solve the plot with magic? Reasons only he knows. Does he know spells, or does he just think of an effect and use his magical knowledge to produce the effect? *shrug*.
This is currently pretty discredited in fantasy – if you write a book with Magic is Wonder now, you’re heavily in risk of people looking at your work and going “Yeah, but why doesn’t [magic thing] solve everything? They/it clearly has levels of power that make this possible, so why doesn’t [X] happen?
The answer is usually somewhere between ‘it doesn’t work like that’ and ‘because that would be boring’, but the Internet hates it when that’s the answer to anything regarding books. I’m not saying this can’t be done well, it’s just that nobody seems to like it at the moment.
This is in some ways a shame, because Magic is Wonder is one of the main draws of fantasy fiction. Remember as a kid, when you read books and didn’t care if the magic didn’t make sense because holy cow, that wizard was just awesome? Or that magic item was just cool? I honestly wish more adult fiction had a go for that sense of wide-eyed wonder. I love a lot of the stuff that’s out there now, but it’s been too long since I read a really wonder-ful adult fantasy book.
In some ways, I’d like to propose a happy medium – what about Harry Potter, for example. What are the rules of magic? You need to have a wand and you need to know the spell you want. How do people make spells up? It’s possible, but never explained. We know magic is studied like a science, or like a mathematical principle (thank you, Hermione!), but we never get to see those principles at work in the actual book. We just know that they’re there, and here’s a new spell that the characters can use and here’s how they use it. Magic very clearly has rules … the reader just isn’t privy to them.
If I had to create a sliding scale for magic rules, that’s where I’d do it. Not on how rules-based the magic is, but on how much of those rules the readers know. Do they get a discussion on why different substances create different effects in potions, and how wands channel magical energy, and how the moon affects magic levels in different phases, or whatever the system is? Do they get told that potions are complicated, and that you need to be a specialist to make them, or that wands require a skilled craftsman to make, or that the phases of the moon affect magic? Or do they get told that a particular wizard can do this thing, but others haven’t been able to replicate it for whatever reason?
Still, I don’t think that this is a good solution for all books. There’s an unspoken corollary to this, which is that the less the reader gets to know about the magic system, the less the main character/s are allowed to know as well. So the wonder in magic comes from the fact that the main character is dwarfed by this monolithic force of nature they don’t completely understand, or by the people so much more learned in the ways of magic. Is this a good way to create wonder? Sure! Is it the only way? It really shouldn’t be.
So I’d like to add another variant to this – make it a Cartesian plan. How much is magic known … and how much is magic knowable?
Maybe all the study in the world won’t tell you why certain people have magic: it’s not genetics, it’s not circumstance, it’s just there. There are certain magic items, but nobody knows where they came from or the exact circumstances of their creation. Perhaps magic itself has agency (thanks [link]Limyaael[/link]!), and the characters are at the mercy of its whims.
So that’s what I want. Let’s put some wonder back in magic, and remember that it doesn’t always have to be explained to the reader … but let’s do it intelligently, too, so we stop copping it from the nitpickers and buzzkills.
RIP Sir Terry Pratchett. May Death be as you imagined him, and may your ripples live long.