Power and Ritual: Magic in Fantasy (#SFWApro)

Reading Jennifer Estep’ urban fantasy Widow’s Web has me thinking about the different ways magic functions in fantasy fiction.
Estep’s book is part of her Elemental Assassin series, whose protagonist is a woman with elemental magic (stone and ice). She doesn’t cast spells, she simply uses it: feels things through stone, freezes an elemental water attack. Other mages work much the same—the villain is a water elemental so she has hydrokinesis. It’s magic as a super-power or magic as psi-ability.
At the other extreme, we have James Blish’s Black Easter. The premise is that medieval European theories of magic work and this magic is incredibly ritualized. Blish goes into great detail on the work it takes for a wizard to equip himself with scrolls, staves and other items, the complexity and risks of conjuring demons (which is how all magic works). It’s magic as … well, magic.
I don’t mean by this that Blish’s approach is better (I think he wrote a better book but that’s a separate question). A good magical system is whatever works for your story. If magic in your world is a demanding practice that requires great dedication, ritual probably works better. If you want magic that allows for a faster pace and more action, something close to the super-power approach may be more up your alley. Or maybe a mix: Magic in Charmed worked primarily as a psi-power, but it also involved potions and rituals.
Larry Correia’s Grimnoir Chronicles have magic creating superhuman mutants (more or less) in the 1930s. It’s a super-hero adventure, no ritual needed and it’s great. My friend Rebekka Niles’ Into the Tides has magic as a kind of free-flowing energy that also manifests as various forms of power in individuals. You don’t become a mage by study and research, you’re basically stuck with the power, or the lack of power (this plays an important role in the book).
Patricia Wrede’s Mairelon the Magician is much more ritually oriented, which I think is partly because it’s historical fantasy and ritual magic just seems more ancient and old-fashioned and authentic (that’s a guess, and not anything I know for a fact).
The Harry Potter books are another in-betweener. The books emphasize that magic takes study and training, but once you know your stuff, you can hurl spells in combat at a second’s notice (I don’t think yelling a word counts as a ritual).
In general I think magic is a lot more combat-ready in current fantasy than it was back in the pulps. Which may reflect that it’s much more common now to see protagonists who have magic. Eighty years ago, it was confined to creepy evil mages in isolated towers, now the good guys have their share. So it needs to be something more useful for heroes.
Or, of course, maybe not.

1 Comment

Filed under Reading, Writing

One response to “Power and Ritual: Magic in Fantasy (#SFWApro)

  1. Pingback: Fact and Fiction Books (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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