Magic is an aspect of fantasy worldbuilding that has always particularly interested me. All worldbuilding is creative, of course, but at least in the case of culture, geography, religion, or architecture, authors have a basis on which to draw. A taxonomy of magic is literally conjured out of thin air; its rules, shapes, and boundaries are totally imagined, or at the very least, inspired only by other imagined systems.
Last month I named Uprooted as one of my best books of 2015 so far. There is a lot to love about the book, but what I savoured most were Novik’s lush, juicy descriptions of magic and the way that magic worked in the world she created.
Uprooted’s protagonist, young wizard Agnieszka, struggles with the study of magic when it is presented to her as just that: memorization by rote. Her magic only blossoms when she learns it by intuition and feel. Agnieszka likens magic to gleaning in the woods – picking her way through thicket and bramble with an eye for a cluster of berries or mushroom grove. “It’s just a way to go,” she explains “and it’s different every time.”
What I loved so much about the magic of Uprooted specifically was this earthiness. This wasn’t just spellcasting – magic as breath and incantation, the remembered shape of syllables in the mouth – this was something weightier and more grounded. This magic came from the same earth that sends air to our lungs. It’s a force Agnieszka draws on; it drains her in the way physical labour would. It’s organic, tangible, and instantly recognizable.
It reminded me of another, vastly different but equally earthy “system of magic” that I love: the magic in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone books. In Taylor’s series, protagonist Karou is shocked to learn that the magic her guardian wields comes from pain – the teeth and bones he brokers (and she has collected) are tokens in a system of pain, the required price of magic.
This magic is dark and occasionally heartbreaking but it also felt right. It made sense to me: you don’t get something from nothing. You have to be willing to pay a price. Sure, it’s not like pain is any more tangible than speech – just another shriek of neurons from the brain – but it costs more. It demands intention and sustained commitment to bruise your own body or to wound another’s. Like the magic in Uprooted, this is a magic that can’t be created endlessly. It gives but it also takes.
This is all more than a little ironic because as anyone who knows me even at all could tell you, I am not a particularly “earthy” person. I (only semi-jokingly) refer to myself as an “indoor cat.” I do not camp. I do not relish grass stains on my knees or dirt under my nails. When I revel in fresh air of the great outdoors, I still prefer to go back to a hotel at the end of the night. But still I want to think of magic as something tethered to the wild, messy, fleshy world in a way even the prissiest of indoor cats can’t ignore.
Paradoxically, for me magic seems all the more magical when it seems possible; when it subject to the same basic principles that underlie the known universe. The real magic comes from feeling that it might really be there, lurking beneath the surfaces just out of reach.