Magic in History and the Master of the House of Darts (#SFWApro)

One thing I wish I’d been able to ask the Dragoncon panel on magic in historical was how you keep magic from changing things just by existing.
If you’re seriously creating an alternate history that’s really alternate (Nicholas Stroud’s Bartimaeus books have William Gladstone establishing a mageocracy in Victorian England close to what Voldemort would have liked), this isn’t an issue. But if you’re sticking close to real history with magic mixed in, it’s trickier (as I discussed here). Even if you stick to simple folk magic, it has the power to change things: make someone fall in love with you, blight their crops, cause the weather to go sour at a crucial moment. If medieval witches had the powers they supposedly did, they’d have been tyrants: who’s going to confront someone who can cause your cows to go barren or your child to come down with epilepsy?
As I noted in the previous magic-in-history post, one way is to assume that magic is rare enough that it doesn’t attain critical mass. Or where there’s enough power on all sides to keep things roughly balanced. In The Twelfth Enchantment, the protagonist, Lucy, is a wizard, but so are her enemies. She can cast spells, they can counter, so magic doesn’t give her an automatic upper hand.
In the wake of Dragoncon, I’ve thought of a couple more:
•Magic’s unreliable. If, say, you have the ability to predict the future, you have a massive advantage. If it’s wrong one out of three times and you can’t count on it completely, that’s not really much of an edge (if you bet on three big races and one of the winners isn’t what you predicted, you’re only slightly better off than other gamblers).
•Magic is restrained by law. In some of Barbara Hambly’s books (Stranger at the Wedding, for one), the setting resembles 1700s/1800s with magic. Precisely because magic can do so much damage (ignite a barrel of gunpowder, poke a hole in a ship) there’s an absolute ban on mages doing anything practical. They maintain a scholastic approach or they’ll be hunted down and killed.
The countless wizard councils and jurisdictional bodies of so many urban fantasies serve much the same purpose, to keep mages from exploiting their powers or exposing them to the public.
•Show that history is the way it is because of magic. Katherine Kurtz’s Lammas Night, for example, reveals that the Spanish Armada would have crushed England if not for magical intervention; the same thing happens to Nazi plans to invade Britain in 1940. Likewise, the retcon origin of DC’s Justice Society shows how Hitler would have conquered England if not for the super-heroes’ intervention.
•Create a challenge that can’t be resolved by raw magical power.
In Aliette deBodard’s third Aztec fantasy, Master of the House of Darts, Acatl, high priest of the death god hears the bad news that the new emperor’s coronation war brought home a measly 40 prisoners, a very bad omen. Worse, a supernatural plague starts spreading from one of the prisoners. Are dark powers closing in while the Aztecs are saddled with a weak emperor? Who’s behind the plague? Are some of the other high priests from other cults looking out for the good of the empire, or for themselves?
Acatl has a lot of power. However he can’t simply blast things or call on his patron to resolve the obstacles. He doesn’t know who to blast or what magic is needed. And he can’t hurl magic against his adversaries in imperial politics unless he’s ready to tear down the whole system: the political arena isn’t the right place for a brute show of force.
It’s an excellent book, like its two predecessors. It’s also a very instructive example of how to do it.

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