the art of magic in fiction
The other day I was sitting around drinking beers with a friend and talking about magic. Specifically, we were discussing the abuse or misuse of magic in fantasy writing. It is my theory that, among other things, the success of a fantasy book, aside from all the basic prerequisites of good fiction (i.e. plot, character development, etc.) – requires that magic is done well.
Alas, in much of what passes for fantasy these days, magic is not done well. It is often used too much, and it is even more often the most unimaginative element of the story next to the characters (often cheap Gandalf knock-offs residing in cheap Middle Earth knock-off worlds). Indeed, aside from the formulaic character development and overuse of standard fantasy races – elven ranger, curmudgeonly dwarf, human fighter, barbarian priestess, and so forth – which read like D&D characters more than actual people, the sad state of magic in fantasy is probably the worst thing about the genre.
Magic should be magical. That’s one thing oft-forgotten in the fantasy world. A spell is much more than a fireball or the summoning of denizens of the deep to do a sorcerer’s wicked bidding.
One excellent example of magic done right is Susanna Clarke’s excellent Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a Victorian-style novel which tells in great detail of an alternative Britain, full of long-forgotten magic, devious fairies, and ambitious and often jealous scholar-magicians. The magic itself is enticing, dark, and wild – even though the magicians who attempt to wield it are more akin to stuffy academics than battle-mages. Indeed, the magic in this book shifts between a whimsical sort of illusion, and chillingly haunting witchery. It is something that we, and even those purportedly in control of it, cannot fully understand. It carries a threat.
Another fine example of magic is in Bernard Cornwell’s Winter King trilogy, a work of historical fiction as much as it is fantasy (Arthurian tales so often are). Magic is more a phenomenon of the superstitious in these books. Merlin’s ability as a magician is based more on his contemporaries willingness to believe that he can ensorcel them than on any real spell-casting prowess. And yet, at the end, one is left wondering if indeed it was all just illusion or if there really was something magical at play – if coincidence can really explain away the inexplicable. That – to my mind – is good magic, full of mystery which leaves a lingering doubt, and a lingering belief in the extraordinary.
In any case, I just get weary and bored of most fantasy fiction. The good ones – George R. R. Martin’s books, Tolkien, Jonathan Strange, and yes, Harry Potter – are diamonds in the proverbial rough. Perhaps I’ve grown too picky. I’ll tell you one thing – the Wheel of Time books are just plain awful….
Anyone have some reccomendations for a poor soul in need of a good book?