Fantastic Fives: magic systems

Wyrd & Wonder - Celebrate The Fantastic (1-31 May 2023)

It’s Sunday, which is the day your Wyrd & Wonder hosts share our Fantastic Fives (in theory. Time is an illusion. Other days may also feature). In honour of this year’s magical theme, we’re kicking off by pondering some of our favourite magic systems and spells. I love this prompt so much I might have to do it twice as I think I want to consider systems and spells separately…

Magic – it defies reality, transcends physics, and often comes burdened with its own rules to ensure there’s plenty of room for character development and plot reversals. What, me, cynical? Usually, but I love a good magic system regardless – in its own right, and in terms of what its rules mean for the fantastical universe its a part of. Today I’ve picked four interesting systems from my recent reads and one all-time favourite.

Tattoo magic

Book cover: Kid Wolf and Kraken Boy - Sam J Miller

Art has been magical since before we first stuck our thumbs into pigment and cast spells on a cave wall; Kraken Boy (not what his mother calls him) draws protective and disruptive symbols on skin. Sam J Miller’s tattoo magic is taught by Lineages with different traditions around the world, a powerful force for change limited only by the artist’s talent, training and belief. This is an irresistible novella – get your hands on a copy if you can.

Language magic

Nobody writes bleak revolution quite like RF Kuang, and her presentation of translation as both magic and a tool of colonial aggression was my favourite thing about her chonky alt Victorian stand-alone. I’ll never resist the thesis that words have power (because of course) and I love the way this extends into translation as a magical art – sometimes violent and often misleading. Academic training required, native speakers preferred.

Book cover: Babel - RF Kuang

Emotional magic

Book cover: The Grief Nurse - Angie Spoto

Angie Spoto’s debut focuses on the power to take the grief of others. A grief nurse takes your sadness, worry, or depression and leave you Bright. To be fair, this is a magical gift rather than a system, but I find the concept intriguing – emotional vampirism as a healing gift, if you will – although I found the novel somewhat undercooked. Strictly a gift a rare few are born with – and can lose, or have ripped from them.

Artistic magic

My current read also centres on the notion of art as magic. Here, the magic resides in the artist: those with the gift and the talent can pour their soul into their work to heal (or harm). This extends to paintings, murals, sculptures and tapestry (although it leaves me wondering about music and ceramics). The catch? Most artists die young, their life force expended on their work – and a misplaced curse unleashed plague on the world. Oops.

Book cover: A Portrait In Shadow - Nicole Jarvis

Naming magic

The power of names is a magical trope stretching back to Ancient Egypt (if not beyond). It offers tremendous scope for storytelling, and Ursula Le Guin’s take on it in her Earthsea books remains a lifelong favourite – the dusty tower of the Master Namer, the importance of the right name for the right spell (not any old word for sea, but the true name of this particular bay), the remarkable end to Ged’s terrible quest in Wizard. I’m tingling just thinking of it.

Do you have any favourite magic systems?


Flying witch artwork by astromoali

Magic portal artwork by Tithi Luadthong

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