Now, don’t get me wrong, I love books with wild and unique magic systems as much as the next fantasy nerd. But sometimes, the magic use becomes a whole subplot of the book, and it can be hard to keep track of what’s happening. Sometimes, it’s just easier to read about simple magic that’s a lot more straightforward. I’m such a fan of characters like Gandalf, who just mutters some words, and magic happens because he’s a wizard. That’s all you need to know, and I think that’s incredible.
There are a few different types of magic that we see often in books. These can be anything from spells to potions to innate magic that you’re born with. Sometimes magic is taught, while otherwise, it’s just something that happens to you. Each of these can be a form of traditional magic in fantasy.
A lot of classics in the genre use traditional fantasy, so I tried to keep the amount of classics here limited. Many of the more recent books featured here harken back to fantasy’s classic magic structures. I will say there are a few on this list that dip their toe into less traditional magic, but at their core, each of these books is a wonderful story with traditional magic systems.
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okarafor
Sunny was born in New York but moved with her parents to their home in Nigeria. As an Albino, Sunny must stay out of the sun, which limits what she can do. So when she meets some kids her age who know all about magic and don’t care that she has to stay out of the sun, they become fast friends. Their power is soon put to the test as someone or something is kidnapping and harming kids. Together, the three must stop kidnappings before it’s too late.
The magic in this world comes from the gods, a very traditional magic system used in fantasy.
Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
Fitz, born out of wedlock to a noble, is brought to the king to be raised. He quickly begins training to be a king’s assassin skilled in combat, politics, and thievery. However, Fitz has a secret: he’s able to connect with animals in a way no one else can. He can speak with them and can understand what they’re feeling. However, this type of magic — called the Wit — is hated and feared by the nobility. The story follows Fitz through his young adulthood as he grows, trains, attempts his first missions, and serves the king. All while trying to keep his secret from spreading, even as the threat of war begins to loom over the kingdom.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Sparrowhawk is as reckless as they come. Determined to gain as much power and knowledge as possible, Sparrowhawk begins looking into ancient magical secrets. As he’s working to uncover these deep secrets, he accidentally lets loose a great evil that begins to engulf the world around him. Now Sparrowhawk must clean up the mess he started and save the world before it’s too late. All he needs to do is find ancient words of power, deal with a dragon, and challenge death itself. How hard could it be?
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
Fey magic is something that has been a part of the fantasy genre since the beginning. Jude was taken to the land of the Fey at the age of seven to live with her real father, King of the Fey. Now she’s trapped in a world where mischief, trickery, and magic abound, but she can’t partake. Determined to change things, Jude decides she wants a place at court, and she will do anything to accomplish her goal. Even if that means being around the incredibly annoying but very attractive Fey Cardan.
Jade City by Fonda Lee
It’s quite common in fantasy to have something that gives the user magic or other abilities. Jade City absolutely perfects this concept. The Island of Kekon is ruled by two crime families. They are able to maintain their power through the use of Jade. When worn, Jade grants some enhanced strength, speed, and stamina. However, once the Mountain Clan starts making trouble, the Kaul family must come together and protect their turf — or die trying.
Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames
While there isn’t a ton of magic in this book, what we do see is in keeping with classic fantasy magic systems. After a horde of monsters traps his friend’s daughter, Ina, far off kept under siege, Slowhand agrees to get back in the adventuring business for one last time. So, with aching backs and knees, these old fighters are getting the band back together to go rescue the young Rose. There’s just one problem. They have to get through a very dangerous magical wood, escape old enemies, and avoid the thieves looking for an easy target. But, the show must go on.
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
This YA novel plays with classic fantasy magic so well in a way that feels so fresh. Bree lost her mother and wants nothing to do with her old life. She decides to enter a program for gifted high schoolers at UNC Chapel Hill, the university her mother attended. However, when she witnesses a demon attack on her first night, she soon finds herself face-to-face with modern Arthurian legends. Now Bree wants a seat at the round table, and she won’t let anyone get in her way.
Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
In one of my favorite magic school books of all time, we follow a woman who has no magic to speak of. Her sister was the magically talented one who got into a special school while she became a private eye. When there is a gruesome murder at the school where her sister now teaches, she’s called to solve it. But what good is one normal person in a school full of magic? And what if the truth of this murder leads her down a path she can never come back from? There’s only one way to find out.
The Poppy War by R.F Kuang
If you haven’t read anything by R.F. Kuang yet, this is your moment. The Poppy War is the first book in a remarkable trilogy that follows a young woman named Rin who, against all odds, makes it into the most exclusive academy in the world. Thrilled to finally have a say in her own life, Rin jumps at the opportunity. But everything comes with a price, and war is on the horizon. Rin must learn to control her power and use it to save her people before it’s too late.
Sabriel by Garth Nix
Sabriel has one foot in a world of magic, the other in a world without. Sent to school outside of the Old Kingdom, Sabriel leads a seemingly normal life. The dead stay dead, and magic is nothing but a fantasy. But when her father goes missing, Sabriel will journey to the Old Kingdom, where the line between the living and the dead is breaking. This is the first in a classic fantasy series, with some truly great magic.
Sandry’s Book by Tamora Pierce
The magic system in this book is based on the idea of there being different magical disciplines, something that’s very prevalent in classic magic systems. Sandry is brought into the mages’ circle to learn how her power over light works, as well as to study the other magical disciplines that her new friends practice. But when disaster strikes, Sandry must do everything in her power to save her home and her friends. Can she figure out how to use four powers at once? Or will she fall short as she always has before?
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
Zacharias Wythe is a very powerful sorcerer who has come a long way in life. But there is a problem. England’s magic is disappearing. Determined to bring it back, Zacharias journeys to the edge of the fey realm to see if the answer lies there. It’s there he meets an extraordinary woman with power, unlike anything he’s ever seen. Together, the two embark on a journey that will change England and the rest of the world forever.
This Woven Kingdom by Tahereh Mafi
Alizeh has a secret. She’s not just a servant. She’s the long-lost heir to an ancient kingdom forced to hide for her safety. Kamran is crown prince and is desperate to stop the prophecy that tells of his father’s death. When these two meet, they can’t quite forget the other. Little do they know that both of them will soon play a part in bringing down the kingdom.
Classic magic systems are classics for a reason. If any of these books pique your interest, I highly recommend diving into each and every one of them. And if you’re looking to explore even more magic systems, there are some pretty incredible books out there just waiting for you.