Fantasy · Young adult

No Thoughts Only Shadow and Bone (2021)

When I decided to participate in this year’s Wyrd and Wonder, I had a lot of plans and underestimated just how strongly nostalgia would end up kicking me in the face, and honestly, that’s my fault for underestimating my 15-year-old self. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be as present as I thought I would be, even though I had low expectations; aside from Real Life issues, I also had a terrible case of Shadow and Bone brain. After watching the Netflix show (and watching. and rewatching. and then rewatching with a friend who is also now obsessed.) it took me several weeks to get out of my own head enough to actually write something like a review.

Shadow and Bone is the book that got me into blogging, and while it isn’t the book that made me discover the English book community, it’s the one that got me to stay. I loved it more than I could explain and it’s the kind of story I thought about daily for years on end, in a way I’ve only ever done with another series later on (fun fact: I found that series because of someone in the old S&B fandom!). It’s also a flawed novel that in some aspects feels was clearly written ten years ago, and that in other aspects only got worse as the series continued (worldbuilding, esp. re: Shu Han); and, to be honest, it’s a straightforward straight YA fantasy, the kind of book I today refuse to even try because none of them do anything for me anymore.

I thought I was over it. I was a fool.

When I first heard that there was going to be a Grishaverse adaptation, I was worried not only because of my attachment to it but also because it set out to adapt both the Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows series. My worries rapidly evaporated as I read the first reviews, and I now can confirm that somehow they made it work – and, I think, Alina’s storyline was actually strengthened by that choice. I don’t necessarily think the show did Six of Crows‘ story justice (more on that later), but as that’s both the best and the least important to me of the two series, I can deal with that.

this review spoils who the villain is, of course.


The Good

If you know me and know why I love the Shadow and Bone trilogy, you can probably imagine what was my main worry: I thought that the show wouldn’t be able to make the Darkling feel convincing. As he’s the character that made Shadow and Bone stand out from a sea of similar chosen-one-love-triangle series from around 2012 and the character that made me realize I loved villains, actually, this was probably the most important part to me.

I’m happy to say that the show didn’t disappoint at all, and while his characterization is somewhat different – as is Alina’s – it works, and comparing show!Darkling and book!Darkling was actually one of the things I had the most fun with. Book!Darkling leans more into the ~mysterious, look at the ~power side of things for his manipulation, while Show!Darkling leans more into showing “vulnerability” in a oh, Ravka is (I’m) such a wounded creature… Alina, only you can save Ravka (me, I’m Ravka and Ravka is me actually) way. Both Darklings of course have elements of both, but the… balance of them is different.

Show!Darkling strikes me as more slimy, and that for me comes across especially in the way he treats Mal. In the books, he kind of doesn’t want to acknowledge his existence and calls him “tracker”; in the show, he deliberately calls him “Mal” with a disdainful overfamiliarity that was almost painful to watch.

I loved how the show made explicit that a cardinal plot point of the story is the villain reading the two protagonists’ love letters and keeping them! I just find that so funny

Another thing I loved was what they did with the Darkling’s clothes, which are beautiful with an eldritch twist – those metal things look as if they’re staring at you! The show’s take on everyone’s Keftas and clothes in general was everything I hoped for. Even when it wanted “ugly”, it truly went for it: Alina’s veiled outfit is the closest a human has ever been to looking like a lamp, and I mean, it’s appropriate. That’s how the king sees her, after all.

Shows have the chance to truly make something come to life, and this one succeeded. It’s easy to make a story following the Six of Crows characters compelling because they already are, but I didn’t think anything could manage to make me care about Marie or make scenes with Ivan of all characters both interesting and enjoyable. The Jesper/Ivan fight is one of my favorite scenes in the whole show and my favorite of the ones that aren’t in the book at all. (The second one is the carriage theft and its aftermath, I’ve wanted something like that since I read Shadow and Bone and love how it went down.)

Another thing I didn’t know I needed was seeing Alina and Inej meet, and what that means for Inej! Alina is important to her in the books already and this is just taking it to another level.

I also really appreciated the general Zlatan storyline. It made the Darkling’s decision in Novokribirsk make much more practical sense instead of that scene being just the most horrifying example of showing off that Ravka has ever seen.

Miscellaneous things I loved:

  • the goat, of course
  • Leigh Bardugo and Shadow and Bone (book) cameos
  • Jesper is the only one who gets a (implied) sex scene. I call that LGBT justice
  • Mal’s friends are actually developed
  • the true-north-erase-the-scar montage was art and so painful at that
  • Ketterdam looks amazing & exactly as I imagined it & I can’t wait for more

The Complicated

I didn’t necessarily love what the show did with Alina. While I really liked the casting, I didn’t love some choices that were made – like making the cartographers’ death her fault at the beginning, which… never comes up again and makes her feel weirdly cold, and given that Jessie Mei Li’s interpretation of Alina is more “literal sunshine” than the (comparably grumpier) book version, it felt very dissonant to me. I’m also sad that Alina’s inner monologue can’t come across in this format; what could have been avoided instead is the flattening. In the books she’s also very insecure (and sickly and tired) and they got rid of most of that, which… I don’t know, it’s this trend of editing out flaws from female characters in the name of “here’s a woman who knows what she wants!” and I hate that, actually. But when I stopped comparing show and book version, I did really like following Alina’s character. There’s no version of her I won’t love; she means so much to me.

Making Alina biracial was also a chance to make something better with the worldbuilding of Shu Han and its relationship to Ravka, a chance to develop the country past a (frankly racist) stereotype. That opportunity was not taken and there was a lot of intentionally-but-clumsily included anti-Asian racism.

they finally translated it because of the show. I hope the translation is good?

Many people have said the show made them like Mal, but I firmly remain in a Mal-indifferent zone. He’s just not my type of character. I wonder how much of the recent Mal love comes from the fact that in the books he’s an unlikable character and here he isn’t as much. My friend – who hasn’t read the books and therefore didn’t have the “he’s going to be insufferable, isn’t he” kind of worry – didn’t feel drawn to him at all either, and she’s usually easier on male characters than I am.

And while the inclusion of the Crows’ plotline made the show more interesting – the first half of Shadow and Bone would feel kind of empty on screen without that! – they objectively steal the scene, which saddens me, because on a subjective level I prefer the other plotline (so much that I sometimes skipped the Crows while rewatching) and I don’t want Shadow and Bone to be… overshadowed in its own show. Also, fusing two different stories – one of which is a cautionary fairytale and the other a fast-paced heist story – just makes you feel like half of the characters are way too smart for the story they’re stuck in.

Other things I have mixed feelings about:

  • I find show!Alina way prettier than show!Genya, which just feels weird
  • the train scenes are very cool. the rest of the world seems not to have invented trains yet
  • Alina’s power being portrayed not like sun rays but like literal little suns looks kind of goofy
  • I’m fine with Kaz having plot armor of course, but wow did they weaken the Cut!
  • Nina Zenik was great but her storyline felt cut off from everything else
  • There isn’t even a mention of Nikolai’s name. He’d be so mad

The Disappointing

The Little Palace should look like something out of a fairytale. Half of the buildings in my city have more character than that. It sounds minor but atmosphere is very important to me and this might be my main dislike.

I get that it’s difficult to do establish worldbuilding in a show, but I feel like the magic system wasn’t… I don’t want to say “explained” because I don’t like magic to be explained, but grounded well. There are rules in the book that the show applies but never actually mentions, and I don’t get why it didn’t even mention like calls to like. Some of those “rules” are also plot-relevant: my friend who didn’t read the book didn’t understand what happened with the stag’s power while in the fold.

Also, no “wanting makes us weak”? The Darkling’s name being revealed so casually? I get why, but still!


Hopes for the Future

My main hope? That we get season two!

Apart from that, there are some things I’d very much like to see, like the show actually taking a chance to develop Shu Han and Alina’s relationship with her Shu heritage when Tamar and Tolya will be introduced; the Crows going on an actual heist like the one in the Ice Court instead of the lackluster halfway thing it had to be at the Little Palace (too smart for this story, I said) because otherwise this show doesn’t do justice to Six of Crows at all; also I think seeing Zoya and Inej having an actual conversation would be very cool.


I’m going to end this post with links to the two reviews that convinced me that the show was worth watching (that you should also read!) and that went more in-depth in several of the issues with the worldbuilding: Hadeer’s and Silvia’s.

Have you seen Shadow and Bone? What are your hopes for its future? Is there anything I should watch now that I’ve resurrected my Netflix account? [Will I be able to keep myself from rewatching this again? No]

Discussion · Fantasy · middle grade

Going Back to Fairy Oak

May is Wyrd and Wonder month, and the prompt for today is nothing other than “Who’s afraid of the suck fairy?“. Well, I am.

I’ve known this feeling since I tried to reread City of Bones in 2017; as I’ve learned, the book that is your favorite at 15 might not look so great two years and two hundred books later. We can talk about this in a boring “your tastes will change, that’s natural and good!” way, or we can do so in a fantasy way: nothing about you changed… the suck fairy happened to the book.

You read a book you used to love, and—something’s happened to it! The prose is terrible, the characters are thin, the plot is ridiculous.

Jo Walton, The Suck Fairy

For this post, I’m reading the new installment in the Fairy Oak series, which I loved in middle school; it has fairies in it and I’ll be crushed if it sucks, so it’s perfect for the topic. Also, after my last post, I feel like dedicating at least one post to an Italian fantasy book is the right thing to do.

For the 15th anniversary of the Fairy Oak series, author Elisabetta Gnone returns to Fairy Oak with a new story. For this post, I went back too.

I’m not going to write an actual review of Fairy Oak: La storia perduta because it wouldn’t make sense to review in English a book that doesn’t even exist in said language; I’m going to use it as a comparison – one between my current feelings for this series and how I felt about it at the time; one between Italian fantasy and US publishing’s idea of Italian fantasy.

I didn’t feel the way I felt while reading the other books in the series when I read La storia perduta, both for my own limitations (I’m 21 instead of 12) and the book’s (it’s a low-stakes story set between already-written books, it didn’t have much space to be its own thing) but it was still a nice time – for the nostalgia, the gorgeous illustrations, and because reading something created outside US publishing’s direct sphere of influence is always a breath of fresh air…

…for the most part. This book is made of flashbacks, and the parts set in the present are exactly the kind of “the characters you loved are now straight married and with kids” thing I despise. Back in middle school I related so much to the main character Pervinca – I, too, was boyish and messy and the less perfect sibling; if I had had magic I would have also been the only Dark Mage in a family of Light Mages – that to read about her happy straight marriage and three kids just feels like a lie. Not like I expected anything different from an Italian book, but I wish I could be more than one part of me at a time, Italian and not trapped in a heteronormativity web. I don’t need it, but it sure would be nice.

this book has a beautiful naked hardcover

But this is Italian, at least.

Americans’ idea of Italian-inspired fantasy often doesn’t feel Italian to me at all; much of it is either stereotypical or simply baffling. The average American Italian-inspired fantasy will involve some fake version of Venice, the mafia, or the Catholic Church (all three if the author is feeling inspired) and a lot of google-translate Italian thrown in where English would have been just fine.

So I’m going to explain why the Fairy Oak series feels Italian to me (well, Ligurian, as both me and the author are) even though it isn’t even trying to be set in Italy, because I don’t think most of these things would even register as Italian-inspired to many. I believe that part of this “Italian inspiration” isn’t intentional, it just bled into the books, which now feel like home.

⇝ The plot of this last book revolves around recognizing cetaceans, together with an illustrated guide; the year’s event is the return of the whale. This is the most Ligurian thing ever. The Ligurian sea is a cetacean sanctuary! (My university has an entire course about that and I gave that exam just a few months ago!)

⇝ There’s so much about sailing and fishing and ropemaking when the book is mostly set on land; that’s very Ligurian too. My family history is made of these things, and in a book that is about roots and tangled family trees and the repeating nature of history, it’s appropriate.

Multiple generations living under one roof and many elderly characters whose only role in the story isn’t dying to teach the main characters about grief. Just a lot of Old People, most of them somewhat nice, which is something American fantasy just doesn’t do.

⇝ In the main series, the enemy is a rainstorm that takes away people: a Ligurian fear made character. A “simple” rainstorm, not a hurricane or a tornado; it’s a… local metereological fear. We (mostly) don’t have hurricanes or tornadoes, but in Liguria, every few years the November rainstorms get deadly.

Magic ≈ Plants. Just like all Ligurian towns, this book is set in a small piece of land between the mountains and the sea, and the two sides come together, green earth and saltwater. There’s sailing, yes, but there’s also more botany than one would expect, because there’s magic in what grows out of the earth in the little space we have. Some magical lessons are set in the greenhouse, the whole town is built around a talking oak, fairies are tied to flowers, and even most of the human magical characters are named after plants. It’s like Prebogión. (Genoese word: mixture of spontaneous weeds that are gathered to make soup or ravioli filling; there are at least 35 plants that can be put in it but some should be used sparingly.)

some of the other books in the series

Fairy Oak doesn’t feel the need to dress up as Italian because it isn’t written to be Italian, it just is. It doesn’t matter that most characters have English names or that the setting clearly isn’t Liguria. The English words are just a dressing: the concept of fantasy is inherently English in the Italian imagination, and this is a fantasy book after all.

There’s nothing that even suggests the characters are speaking in English, which has some… interesting consequences when it comes to names. There’s an evil character named Lesser Skullcup, like the flower (Scutellaria minor, lesser skullcap), but with a misspelling. Yes, “Lesser” is his name. This is the first time I’ve seen the English equivalent of the nonsensical fake Italian names of American Italian-inspired fantasy!

I’m so used to Italian-inspired American-hearted books written by authors who only care about Italy as a decoration that finding the exact opposite was an Experience. Does it make me think less of the quality of the writing? Yes; I’m bilingual, this is ridiculous. Do I still kind of love it? Also yes.

I’m going to end this post with a picture I took in 2019, both for Atmosphere reasons and to explain just how literally I mean “between the mountains and the sea” and “the little space we have” when I talk about Liguria.

Vernazza, once Ligurian fishing port and now beloved Ligurian tourist trap.

Would you reread or continue the series you loved in middle school, or do you feel the shadow of the Suck Fairy hanging over them?

Discussion · Fantasy

On Fantasy and Italy

May is Wyrd and Wonder month, and the prompt for today is nothing other than “Fantasy from around the world“.

I thought about writing a recommendation list: authors writing in English from non-English speaking countries get very little visibility, but my blog can’t provide much of it anyway, and I imagine that most names I have in mind would show up on a lot of lists already. So I’m going to talk about Fantasy in Italy instead: my thoughts on my country’s overall perspective on this genre, and what that means for me as a mostly-SFF blogger in the English booksphere.

image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com

I’m going to talk about my experience with what’s accessible in bookstores to an average reader; I actually know the behind-the-scenes of writing fantasy in Italy very little, and I’m sure there’s a lot I don’t know about Italian fantasy literature because it’s not easy to find unless you already know where to look for. And there are reasons for that, mostly tied two main Italian assumptions: Fantasy is an English genre and Fantasy is a kid’s genre.


Italy, Fantasy, and Acqua

My feeling has always been that Italy and fantasy don’t really get along. I don’t know whether this is just a coincidence, but we don’t have a widely-used word for the fantasy genre the same way we do for science fiction (“fantascienza”), as if it were always inherently an outsider. That’s not to say that the concept of magic, in one way or another, hasn’t been a significant part of our culture – it has, in Italian literature and legends and even historical events – but it’s not really the same thing.

What I can say is that true fantasy, fantasy-as-the-English-know-it, is perceived as something for children.

original Italian cover of LoTR

We all know that in the English-speaking book world there are people turning up their nose at genre fiction; it happens all the time, even though it might not happen as often or with as little pushback as it did before social media was a thing. It’s not what I’m talking about here, even though this happens in Italy too. I’m saying that fantasy is specifically perceived as “for children” in a way science fiction is not, in a way that doesn’t match the common stereotypes I see in the English book world (“genre fiction is commercial and therefore valueless” and “adult fantasy written by women must actually be YA”).

No, all fantasy is specifically for kids, including fantasy written by men. The first Italian translator of The Lord of the Rings, Vittoria Alliata, was only 17, and given how I’ve heard people talk about fantasy for most of my life I can imagine why that choice was made. (Probably not because they valued the abilities and thoughts of teen girls, I’m saying.)

Some relatives also gifted me a copy of A Game of Thrones when I was 13, and I guess that their thought process wasn’t “this is appropriate young teen reading material”, “my niece can handle it”, but “everyone talks about this series these days, so it must be good, and it’s fantasy, so it must be ok for kids”. The Average Middle Aged Italian Person who doesn’t really follow SFF in any form still thinks “ah yes. Kid books” when they see fantasy. With the Game of Thrones TV show becoming more well-known for its violence through the years, this might be changing; it’s definitely changing with younger generations, because few of us are that detached from the Anglosphere anymore.

This is the main reason, outside of the queerness, I rarely mentioned what I read to any adult as an older teen. This is one of the main reasons, outside of queerness, I started reading in English: sometimes the translations, even by major Italian publishing houses, were terrible (“would a kid notice?”) and series were often left unfinished (“oh, this wasn’t successful, and clearly not because we didn’t put any thought or money into it! Let’s try with the first book in another random fantasy series. Kids have a fish’ attention span anyway”). I don’t have a high opinion of Italian publishing in general, but I could be wrong about their reasoning: maybe they are this thoughtless with every genre and age range.

This might be one of the reasons fantasy books written by Italians shine in the pre-teen age range. One of my favorite and formative series was Fairy Oak by Elisabetta Gnone, a series about twin witches living in an enchanted town. It’s very Italian in its being way more concerned with atmosphere than with plot; very Ligurian (this author is from my region) in its values and culture; very English because it’s fantasy. It’s not a coincidence that the setting is a hybrid between Liguria and an English small town; it’s not a coincidence that the characters have a mix of English and Italian names. Also, just look at the title.

I consider the Fairy Oak series to be several steps above most English middle grade I’ve read, and not just because of how important and close it is to me, but I don’t feel similarly about any Italian fantasy book aimed at an older audience. That’s also because I don’t know it very well and a lot of it doesn’t appeal to me for homogeneity (male and/or heterosexual) reasons. That’s not to say I’ve never read any of it, but… almost, because if the kind of stories that appeal to me are being written, they’re not easily found, and that’s a problem in itself.

As for what I read that wasn’t written for middle schoolers: I read all Licia Troisi books up until 2015, and while the stories of the Mondo Emerso wouldn’t look in any way out of place among Throne of Glass-type fantasy (though it predates Throne of Glass by almost a decade) I wouldn’t put the best ones anywhere near a “best YA books I’ve read” list, despite the nostalgia. What some of them do have is better covers:

Original cover art for the second Mondo Emerso series, the Guerre del Mondo Emerso trilogy

The main problem is, most Italian fantasy isn’t well-known even in Italy, and outside the middle grade age range, “big authors” like Licia Troisi are the exception to the rule. It never feels like publishers are trying to make it a thing. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy: fantasy is an English genre, and so we’re only going to spend money on translated works we know were successful in the US if we’re to spend money on any fantasy book at all.

original Italian cover of The Hobbit

And that’s how I ended up on the other side of this language barrier. I’m sure there are people who specifically look for hobbies that require them to be fluent in languages they wouldn’t otherwise use as much, but I’m not one of them! If I could have been an SFF book blogger by reading Italian books, I probably would have: at heart, I’m a lazy person. A dragon who would have happily slept on its pile of Italian fantasy books. (When I think of fantasy my mind always goes back to the cover of the first fantasy book I read, The Hobbit, with Smaug sleeping on a pile of gold on the cover.)

I’m here instead, and this place changed me a lot; I didn’t even realize how much until I wasn’t here very much anymore. It gave me the language to describe some of my experiences, for how much it shouldn’t have had to; it helped me interact with many people who have a perspective completely different from mine, and certain things are invaluable for someone who for various reason can’t travel much. (English social media also exposed me to a significant amount of nonsense that is culturally different from the usual nonsense I’d encounter in my everyday life: there’s value in that too!)

The underlying reasons I ended up in this place might not be the best, but I’m glad to be here.


What are some misconceptions about fantasy people around you have? I’m curious about what everyone encounters more often; maybe we’re more similar than I realize.

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Two Asian-Inspired Fantasy Novellas

Today, I’m reviewing two Asian-inspired fantasy novellas I really liked. As usual, Tor.com doesn’t disappoint!


46802653._sy475_Empress of Salt and Fortune is the best example of quiet fantasy I know. It’s a story about a revolution, about the upheaval of an empire, the way many fantasy stories are – and yet it’s unlike everything I’ve ever read. There isn’t one fight scene, it’s told decades after the events happened, and it relies so much on details and symbolism, as quiet fantasy does when it needs to talk about something not quiet at all.

It follows Chih (they/them), a cleric – who pretty much functions as a historian and archivist – and their nixin Almost Brilliant, a magical hoopoe, as they talk with Rabbit, an old woman who was once one of the Empress’ servants.

This novella is split between Chih’s present and Rabbit’s past, and most chapters begin with an inventory. It’s a story told through the history of objects as much as the history of people, as the small, mundane details have their own language, and this book understands that. This hidden language of symbols is an important thread running through the story, and it’s tied to its main theme – the power that lies in what is overlooked. Like servants. Like exiled wives, as In-yo, the Empress of Salt and Fortune, was. Like the bonds women form with each other, and the way they support each others through hardships.

Because of its setup, this novella felt a lot like the mirror version of another queer Asian-inspired novella about devotion and revolution told in flashbacks I’ve read, The Ascent to Godhood (by the way, I would recommend this to all Tensorate fans). Unlike Ascent, however, it’s all but a tragic villain story. Empress of Salt and Fortune is gentle, unhurried, and very short – and more powerful than a lot of fantasy trilogies.

Half of the reason this story is so memorable is the writing. It’s never flowery and always sharp, almost minimalistic, so that what isn’t said and is just left implied has just as much weight as what is written. The descriptions are short but incredibly vivid, as is true for everything in this book, to be honest. Even minor characters that only appear in flashbacks, like Mai and Yan Lian, are so well-drawn they jump off the page. And In-yo? She’s already dead at the beginning of the story, but you could feel the power of her presence. The writing is that good.

Also, I loved the worldbuilding. It’s deceptively simple, clear and never messy, and the amount of casual queerness – not only the worldbuilding isn’t binarist, there are queer side characters too, which include In-yo – was amazing. Also, there are talking animals and people ride mammoths. How could I not love that.

Empress of Salt and Fortune is one of the best novellas I’ve ever read, now maybe even my favorite! I really look forward to reading what Nghi Vo will write in the future.

My rating: ★★★★★


45166076._sy475_Overall, I didn’t feel strongly about this, and it’s far from my favorite thing from Zen Cho, but I got emotional about the ending, so.
The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is a wuxia-inspired fantasy novella following a group of bandits and an ex-anchorite nun after an unexpected fight in a coffeehouse.

I want to start with the positives and say that Zen Cho knows how to write effective banter even when there’s not much page-time to develop the characters, and really gets the serious-humorous balance right in general as well – this is overall a very entertaining story. It’s also always really nice to read about fantasy worlds where queerness is relatively unremarkable; I want to specifically mention that this is also true for being trans, as many supposedly queer-normative fantasy books don’t even try to acknowledge that trans people exist.

While this features the “outcast found family” trope, it focuses mostly on three characters:
🌘 naive-yet-shrewd ex-anchorite Guet Imm, votary of the Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, whose tokong has been destroyed; she was hilarious and definitely my favorite character.
🌘 mysterious Tet Sang, who is hiding far more than any of his friends suspect;
🌘 beautiful, charming Lau Fung Cheung, more or less the leader of the group.
The other characters were pretty much a blur. Here’s the thing: I don’t think novellas are the right format for the found family trope. It’s already hard enough to pull off in a standalone novel.

Another thing that didn’t work for me much was the lack of descriptions. Maybe it stood out to me because I just finished another novella, Empress of Salt and Fortune, that put painstaking attention into every detail and made them matter, but here I felt like I didn’t know how anything actually looked like.
Also, while I really appreciated how normalized queerness was, this book did kind of use a character’s transness* as a small twist, which could have been easily avoided – but it didn’t end up being the character’s Big Secret, which is refreshing.

*spoilery clarification:

it’s complicated, even for the character, how to define himself, but it’s clear that he uses he/him and doesn’t want to be called “sister”.

There are also some nods to topics I would have loved to see explored more, like how going through traumatic events like a war can change one’s relationship with faith. There are a lot of thing here I would have loved to see more of, characters included, and this definitely has sequel potential, so I’m hopeful.

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read any interesting novellas lately?

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.

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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.

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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?