What do I mean by magic system?
Basically, any book, film, or TV series will have its own take on magical or supernatural power and how that power works -- who can (or cannot) wield it, what can magic do (or not do), what a given power's weaknesses and limitations are, etc. This understanding of magic, in its totality, is what I mean when I say magic system.* Some systems -- for example, Allomancy in Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series -- are so thoroughly detailed that you actually have a systematic view of magic in play when reading the book. Others -- such as Narnia or Harry Potter -- leave far more to the imagination than they do to the schoolbooks; their focus is less on how the magic works in small details than in the larger story.**
* It should be noted that (while brilliant in their own right) Sanderson's Laws of Magic may not apply to these systems. That's okay. We can't all be Brandon Sanderson.
** This goes in direct opposition to Sanderson's First Law: "An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic."
Free Magic and the Charter: The Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix
There are two main reasons I love this magic system and devour anything new Garth Nix puts out in this universe. 1) The series centers on a family of mages whose sole duty is to keep the Dead, well, dead. Having the protagonists be necromancers of a different color (so to speak) was one of the most brilliant things Nix could have done. 2) The Charter's description as a living word made up of millions of marks that a Charter Mage must learn by heart, while not written as a Christian allegory or symbol, still resonates with me because it seems a fitting symbol of Christ and the Holy Spirit. But beyond that, this magic system works because, while it doesn't lay out every possible working of the magic (looking at you, Brandon Sanderson), it is always inventive and true to its basic groundwork.
Allomancy, Feruchemy, and Hemalurgy: The Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson
Brandon Sanderson is so gung-ho about having magic systems with far-reaching consequences that he put not one, not two, but three systems into the Mistborn series. And all of them make sense in regard to one another while still operating in slightly different ways. Allomancy is the most common (used by the titular Mistborn) and it ties with Feruchemy for my favorite of the three. Allomancers are able to burn metals (usually just one) that they've ingested to achieve a specific effect: affecting emotions, reacting to metal outside the body, etc. And each metal has an opposite (this system is very heavy in Newtonian physics) so that any given power has a push to its pull. Feruchemists, on the other hand, use metals as storage devices for physical and mental traits like stamina, speed, and memory. These two systems complement each other very well, and are used primarily (if not exclusively) by the protagonists. Then there's Hemalurgy, which is much darker, and involves taking power from another individual by means of metal. This set of magic systems is one of the best-written I've ever encountered.
The One Power: The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson)
* Let's not talk about the Dark One's so-called "True Power." Just don't.
** The language of the spell-casting is driven by textile words, much like that of glamour in Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist Histories.
Bending: Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra
Avatar and its sequel series feature another four elements-based system in which gifted individuals can "bend" one of the four elements (spirit gets left out for the most part, with the rare exception of lion-turtles using energybending) in conjunction with martial arts skills to affect the world around them. The main exception to this rule being the titular Avatar who can bend all four elements and whose role in the world is to facilitate peace among the tribes. Bending is a neat, uncomplicated little magic system that still manages to grow with the franchise to include some sub-elemental specialties like metalbending and lightning generation. The most wonderful part of it is that no one element is actually strong enough to negate the other three (despite the Fire Nation oppressing most of the world for 100 years) and the separate disciplines still have much they can learn from one another. For instance, a firebender uses a waterbending technique to redirect lightning, and each new Avatar must learn the other three elements in their time, which often leads to consternation as they are forced to think in ways different from their native elemental mindset.
Folding: The Paper Magician series by Charlie N. Holmberg
While I've only read the first book in this series (I'm currently reading the second), the magic system is still fun and well thought out. (This is unsurprising given that Miss Holmberg is a former student of Mr. Laws of Magic himself, Brandon Sanderson.) The foundational rules of the world are these: if you can become a magician, you are bound to one material with which to work your magic. Forever. And absolutely no use of blood magic is allowed. Otherwise, magicians are free to be as creative as they care to be -- and protagonist Ceony Twill is quite creative. Folding -- using paper for magic -- is the central focus of the books since that is the path Ceony is forced into by the school, but Holmberg goes well beyond simple origami in crafting the magic that fills these books. Paper butlers, paper dogs, and even a paper heart all make their appearances in believable fashion. There are magicians of glass, fire, metal, and even plastic, all with their own specialties. (I'm still waiting to see a Smelter use their enchanted bullets.)
Silvertongue: The Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke
This may be the vaguest magic system on my list in terms of hard and fast, detailed rules that are laid out in the books. It boils down to this: there are a handful of individuals whose talent for reading aloud goes well beyond bringing imagination to life -- it brings the characters from books into the living world. The catch is, someone (or something) from our world gets sent into the book world in exchange. Furthermore, once inside the book world, a Silvertongue can make changes to the story if they read aloud properly. As a lover of books, this is just too fun a system to not list. The series is phenomenal and this central conceit holds it all together.
Alchemy: Fullmetal Alchemist and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
These two series, adapted from the manga by Hiomu Arakawa, are hands-down my favorite anime series of all time. One reason for that is the strikingly realistic way in which it handles the alchemy it utilizes as its main conceit. At the heart of alchemy lie two principles (well, one and a half). First, the law of equivalent exchange (much like the law of conservation of matter and energy) states that nothing can be gained without the alchemist giving something in return. You can't just summon a weapon or make a staircase out of thin air. There must be material already present to work with. For this reason, most alchemists find a particular material or style to work with (such as Roy Mustang's flame alchemy) and are always prepared to utilize it in battle or in service to king and country. Second, and flowing from the first, human transmutation (or attempting to create human life through alchemy) is forbidden. More than that, it's impossible, because alchemy cannot accomodate or account for the existence of the soul. The inventiveness of the characters in using alchemy is what makes this system shine brightest, though.
What are your favorite magic systems that you've read or seen? Let me know in the comments!
I'll be guest posting on what I love about Arthurian legend and how it has influenced the Albion books at The Splendor Falls on Castle Walls tomorrow. Be sure to come by and check it out!
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