In most fantasy novels that I’ve read (and I’ve read quite a lot of them), performing magic is a matter of waving a wand and saying some words, or concentrating very hard on your desired outcome; consistent actions, and (mostly) consistent results. Which is great – all magic is awesome magic! 😀 Every now and then, though, I come across a book with a really interesting, inventive magic system, unlike anything I’ve seen before. And exploring these kinds of magic – learning their uses and limitations, and seeing how the characters put them into practice – is one of my favourite things to do. 🙂 The magic systems in these books/series are some of my recent favourites, so I hope you like them, too!
1) Carry On by Rainbow Rowell. Though heavily influenced by Harry Potter and its fandom, the magic is one thing in Carry On that’s entirely unique, and was one of the best things about this (already fantastic) novel. Spells in this world are popular phrases, and are given power by how well-known they are. So, for example, “some like it hot” can be used as a warming spell, but if people stopped using the phrase, then the spell would become less and less effective. It’s mentioned a few times that song lyrics don’t make very good spells (with a few exceptions) for this very reason; they enter and leave popular culture too quickly. Nursery rhymes, on the other hand, apparently make great ones, as people are never really able to forget them… There’s a really epic scene near the middle of the book, where Baz uses “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home” on a dragon. 😛
2) The Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. The magic in this book is called Allomancy, and those who use it are Allomancers, their powers drawn from different kinds of metals, and their alloys (hence the name). Iron and steel push and pull (respectively) on nearby metal objects; tin and pewter enhance the users’ senses or physical abilities; brass can be used to calm emotions, while zinc enflames them; and bronze is used to locate nearby Allomancy, while copper hides it. Allomancers can generally only use one type of metal, but there are a few select people, called the Mistborn, who are able to use them all. Each power seems quite limited in potential, but the way that Sanderson incorporates them into the story is pure genius, and he writes some of the best magical action scenes I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
3) The Demon Cycle series by Peter V. Brett. I have a love-hate relationship with this series, because it’s really great, but horrible things keep happening to all my favourite characters… 😥 The magic system, though, is based on wards – runic images painted onto any surface available, which do things like create barriers, or turn a demon’s fire into wind – and only have an effect on demons (which is convenient, since the Thesa is beset by them). Runic magic in itself isn’t all that unusual in fantasy, but what sets The Demon Cycle apart is this interesting detail: The wards are all powered by the demons themselves; the more the demons fight against them, the more power the wards will be able to draw on, and the stronger their magic will become.
4) The Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix. This series uses another runic system called Charter magic, but there are actually several different schools of magic in The Old Kingdom series. When I first read it, I was particularly enamoured of the Clayr, a group of sorceresses who can see into the future, but the kind of magic that’s most important to the series is that of the Abhorsen – a hereditary title belonging to Sabriel’s family, which marks them as necromancers. Main characters who are necromancers are incredibly hard to come by, in my experience, but the way that Sabriel uses her powers is a little different from most portrayals of necromancy – she uses a selection of bells, each with a different purpose (one to call the dead, one to banish them, one to bind them, etc.). In the second book, another character is introduced who’s also able to channel her power through a mirror, which is just as unusual as the bells.
5) The Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman. This last series is one of my most recent discoveries: I’ve only read the first book so far, but I think I’ve just about got a handle on the magic that Irene uses (which, again, is not the only form of magic in the book, just the most interesting). It’s called the Language, and can only be used by Librarians of the mysterious Invisible Library, of which Irene – our heroine – is one. Instead of casting standardised spells, Irene is able to use the Language to instruct the world around her to alter itself (for instance by telling a lock to open), and – so long as she’s worded her order correctly – the world will obey her. It’s incredibly open to interpretation (she has to choose her words very carefully), and constantly evolving, and she receives new updates on the Language whenever she returns to the Library from a mission. Interestingly, she also tells us a few times that the Language doesn’t work so well when ordering objects to do things that are against their nature. For example, she very easily manages to tell a collection of enchanted gargoyles to stop moving, since stone is naturally still; it would have been much harder for her to make them move in the first place (had they not been enchanted), and the spell would have worn off much more quickly.