Discussion · Fantasy

On Rules and Magic Systems

May is Wyrd and Wonder month! What best time there could ever be for talking about what I like about magic in books?

(It will have footnotes. I’m preemptively sorry.)

Before I started reviewing, I wanted to write¹. I cared very much about writing a Good and Original Fantasy Novel, so I spent a lot of time reading fantasy writing advice on the internet. A lot of it was bad and I recognized it as such (don’t describe your character’s appearance because it doesn’t matter anyway? Yeah, no), and a lot of it was bad but I’m only recognizing that as I read more fantasy.

Rules? In My Magic System?

In those circles, there seemed to be very specific ideas about how one should write magic. Five and more years later, I’m realizing that I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of things I thought were necessary then.

Here’s the thing: I don’t want to understand everything about how the magic works. Which seems to be the main point on which me and internet writing advice disagree more every year, as I read more and more SFF with magic systems that go first in a completely wacky direction and then on my favorites list.


Let’s first get one thing out of the way: having a kind of magic that is weird, incomprehensible, or mostly unexplained for various reasons, doesn’t mean that the author will use said uncharted and unexplained territory to get a character out of a bad situation. That’s lazy writing and I’m not interested in it, and I think that’s the main reason at first I thought I didn’t like undefined magic systems: because I was reading a lot of fantasy that exploited the loopholes. I specifically remember having a problem with the magic in Caraval because the limits were never established, but would I have had a problem with that had the author not used magic so much to push the story along? Probably not. It isn’t about breaking the rules, it’s about using “magic” as a plot point instead of having the characters make meaningful decisions. As long as the characters do that, you can spare the reader the tedious explanations that manage to take the magic out of magic.

The thing is, realistically, one can fully explain a magic system in a satisfactory way only if that magic system is relatively simple, sometimes simple enough in a way that just doesn’t ring true to me. It might be that I have the perspective of someone studying natural sciences: in ecology, a major issue is exactly trying to describe things with rules or mathematical models, as more often than not, when it comes to more than large-scale patterns, ecosystems just won’t have it. (*points at pond* this bad boy can fit so many variables in it.) Enough that we dedicated a part of the course specifically to idiosyncrasy².


So why are the mechanisms behind magic easier to understand than the mechanisms behind everyday non-magical things? If anything, it should be the opposite. I love the kind of SFF in which there’s very clearly an entire field dedicated to studying magic, and had a great time while reading Gideon the Ninth, in which the main character, a non-necromancer surrounded by necromancers, mostly understands nothing³ (and as a result, the reader’s idea of how the magic works is extremely vague) but the story still works. All we need is a very vague idea of the limits of what magic can attempt, and then we can go from there. No more explaining, I’m trying to have fun here.

Very predictably for me, I’ve always been drawn to magic that didn’t have clear rules4; in the past, I just thought that had to mean I wasn’t very critical about fantasy. Now that I always find enough reasons to complain about pretty much everything, I doubt that was the issue; if anything, there was a flaw in the idea that things can only be good if done in a very specific way. I’d much rather have a complete mess than same old elemental magic with very clear-cut rules any day, and that has always been true. (As usual, my principle for worldbuilding is “I’d rather be confused than bored”).

I’ve seen the Sanderson-coined idea of hard vs. soft magic systems, and I have a lot of doubts about that, because my reaction to the clear division between hard and soft science is already *stares in natural sciences student*, but I especially disagree with the idea that hard magic systems are for realism5 and a softer magic system’s main point would be to cause a sense of wonder in the reader. No, to me is important that the magic feels real and believable, not akin to a set of rules I could find in the explanation sheet of a board game.

But the thing is, this is a preference. I prefer the weird, unpredictable kind of magic, but I’ve never found myself thinking that a book was badly written for having neatly defined rules. Then why do we feel fine with talking about different, more unusual kinds of magic as if they were flaws or “bad writing”?

I also think a lot of authors and writing advice approach fantasy worldbuilding as if the readers needed to use the magic themselves – and it might be useful for the author to know the limits (and maybe, though not necessarily, the workings behind) more in detail. But the reader doesn’t need to, stories don’t have that constraint, and I think that’s great: you get a chance to have fun, be realistic and go with full chaos.

It Has Footnotes!

¹ it’s not that now I don’t, but then bilingualism happened, or it happened too late for it to actually work, and things got messy. Currently, I’m at the very desirable stage of being bad at not one but two languages!

² the TL;DR of idiosyncrasy in ecology: hoping to predict how an ecological community  will respond to something basing yourself on what you’ve seen in another place? Oh, good luck with that.

³ when the other characters talk about thanergy and Gideon says “that’s death juice” = accurate equivalent of the kind of sciencespeak-to-Italian translation I constantly do in my head around physicists. (Due to life circumstances, I’m often around physicists.) This is the kind of hard-hitting realism SFF needs!

Uprwoordpres4 irrelevant hill I’m willing to die on: the magic system in Uprooted was perfect as it is, how could it be any different – what, do we want plant magic to work according to easily understandable rules? When it’s about plants? *Flashback to botany course* oh I would love to get some of those easily understandable, always true rules for real plants

5 The wikipedia page on this topic says that magic systems with clear costs and limitations, of which the reader understands the inner workings, make the story feel more realistic. I think that’s quite simply wrong. There are so many things in our everyday life we don’t fully understand the workings or sometimes even limits of, and yet we use anyway. (*looks at computer.*) I don’t know what it says about my life exactly, but I find a general feeling of ignorance and lack of convenient explanation behind something more real than something that can be easily explained in two paragraphs.

What do your favorite magic systems have in common?


T5W: Favorite Magic Systems

Top 5 Wednesday is a goodreads group created by Lainey (gingerreadslainey) and now hosted by Sam (thoughtsontomes). This week’s topic is Favorite Magic Systems.

This October, T5W is exploring not only the paranormal, but also magic and wizardry in general!

My favorite kind of magic has always been the very weird one without clear rules; I think it’s more fun that way. That’s one of the reasons magical realism and surreal contemporary fantasy are some of my favorite genres. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a well-written magic system – in a fantasy book, I need one. Magical realism, surrealism and related genres can afford not having rules for their magic; the average fantasy does not.



Grishaverse was one of the first fantasy universes I got to know in which I actually liked the magic system. It has well-defined limits, and a cost for those who decide to ignore them – as we see with the abominations that are merzost and jurda parem.
I love how this series blurs the line between magic and science – as you’ll see from this post, it’s one of my favorite traits a magic system can have – as the Grisha’s magic is called “small science” and also studied as such.
I also love reading about factions that are not based on personality traits or bloodlines, and to see how the magical school was organized – the corporalki are healers and killers, the etherealki are elemental magicians, and the materialki are those who work with inanimate objects like metals or chemicals – was one of my favorite aspects of Shadow and Bone.

For a Muse of Fire


I read For a Muse of Fire recently, after not feeling strongly about Heilig’s previous duology (liked the first book, didn’t like the second one, just average overall), and I can now say that a magic system rarely gets better than shadow plays made with possessed puppets.
The main character of this book is able to see and control ghosts. At the beginning of the novel, she uses this power to make shadow plays with stringless puppets, and the result is… a very unusual form of necromancy. I would have liked to know more about the details and limitations of her magic but I really liked the concept.

Book of the Ancestor


The only thing that I don’t like about this magic system is the fact that it’s tied to a character’s bloodline and that’s not a trope I like that much, but apart from that, I love this. My favorite aspect about Red Sister‘s magic system is the visuals. It’s a magic system focused on fighting, and the way marjal (non-path magic) and hunska (supernatural high speed) magic are shown in the fight scenes is one of the reasons I liked this book so much. But the most interesting part is quantal magic. I can’t explain what “the path” is in so little space, but I can say that it is one of the most imaginative aspects of a magic system I’ve ever read.

Anything by Yoon Ha Lee


One of the main reasons I like Lee’s worlds is the way he writes magic. The line between magic and science is always blurred and there’s a lot of fictional math, sometimes even fictional physics. I love all of this, and it’s what I want from science fantasy. In Ninefox Gambit, the magic system is based on calendars and people go to war over them. It’s very weird and I love it. In his collection Conservation of Shadows, you’ll find:

  • shadow magic, killer shadows, and shadow mathematicians
  • quantum chess warfare
  • ancestry-erasing guns
  • deadly weapons unfolding from raining origami
  • magic able to erase languages + “tactical linguistics”
  • myths coming to life from the pages of books, and more

Tensorate series


This is one of the best novella series I’ve read because of the worldbuilding, and my favorite aspect of the worldbuilding is the magic system, especially the way it is explored in The Red Threads of Fortune. This is a series about the conflict between magic and science, and the way magic and science come together, and most of the magic is based on threads and five natures (and while I didn’t understand how it worked immediately, I loved the very pretty descriptions of it since the beginning).

What are your favorite magic systems?