I write fantasy novels, and as such I also read a lot of fantasy novels. So it should come as no surprise that I have encountered many different magic systems, and have even invented a few. They are absolutely essential to fantasy, and when done right give the genre a sense of wonder and escape that is difficult to match.
But I’ve been noticing something interesting lately, a trend in these magic systems that gives me some cause for concern, and which I thought would be good discussion fodder. It seems like more and more of the newer entries into the fantasy genre and sub-genres are increasingly magic heavy. By that I mean, more focus on developing a rich and complex magic system, and less focus on equally rich and complex characters and plots. The same might be said about world-building, but I’ll leave that for a subject of another post.
It seems like a new guard of fantasy authors are trying to out-magic each other, a magic system arms race of sorts. I’m not sure what the logical conclusion of such an endeavor would turn out to be, but I have a few thoughts on what it’s affects have been thus far.
Spoiler: I’m not going to be naming any specific books or authors, but rather discussing the trend itself. Not trying to step on any specific toes here…just general ones.
- Flat Characters: I proceed with caution on this one, because I know that the magic system can’t be blamed for Jane protagonist being the character equivalent of a cardboard cutout, except for when she’s drawing in the energy du jour, and channeling said energy into some form of magic weapon. But I also can’t ignore that much of the newer fantasy I read seems to push character development to the back burner, and it seems to correspond with ever more intricate and imaginative magic systems, as though the two can’t share the same page-space. I’m hoping this is just a trend in the market, some over response to a misdiagnosed demand.
- It’s So Magical, that It isn’t: Another affect I’ve seen in this race to the most magical magic, is the tendency, in the process of explaining said magic, to destroy the sense of magic itself. Several books I’ve read recently have had multi-layered systems that in themselves were remarkable. But they were so robust that the authors felt the need to explain how they worked in great detail. “The heat gets drawn out of the air, then transmuted into chi, then it gets bound to your aura, then…” It goes on and on and by the end of the explanation (if you make it that far) your left with something that is no longer magic at all. It is just the quirky physics of this fantasy world. Doesn’t that take something away from the wonder, away from the magic of the fantasy?
- Antagonist Leveling: With all of this new and improved magic at the disposal of the protagonists, naturally the antagonists should have been receiving equal or greater magic weapons, otherwise the conclusions would never be in doubt, and we’d have no reason to read to the end. And so as the magic systems level up, so do the villains. This is something that comic book writers have been struggling with for decades. Titan gets overshadowed by Galactus, gets overpowered by Chronos, gets bested by Universe Man, etc. At what point is it just God fighting God and we can all just skip to the last page to see a good ole fashioned war of attrition. It becomes so far removed from human experience that we can no longer relate to or empathize with the characters.
I don’t mean to imply that intricate, explainable, or high-powered magic systems are all bad, in fact I think they can provide a great framework to write excellent fiction, and treated well, can have some advantages over more magic-lite fantasy. But I do worry that they are becoming a crutch for newer authors trying to meet book release quotas, pumping out books faster and faster. I worry that this brand of fantasy distances itself from some of the basic principles inherent to the craft of good writing. I also worry that it starts to condition fantasy readers to a less and less literary form of the genre, and that over time, they will come to expect it.
I’m sure not everyone will agree on these points, and I’d love to hear other opinions. Are we heading toward a magic induced fanatasypocalypse? Or are we seeing the seeds being planted for a completely new and divergent sub-genre altogether? Let me know what you think in the comments.