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Literature's greatest wizard fights?
December 17, 2010 10:56 AM   Subscribe

What are the best magical duels and battles in literature? Sorcerors blasting each other with lightning bolts, the metaphysical shenanigans of Last Call etc, whatever. I haven't actually read the Harry Potter books, so if there are any particularly good wizard battles in that, do say.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot to Media & Arts (38 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
Head right for The Black Company series, by Glen Cook. The Battle at the Stair of Tear — tactical brilliance plus sorcery ... epic.
posted by adipocere at 11:02 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


The magic battle(s) in Storm Front (nothing to do with Stormfront,) the first Harry Dresden book by Jim Butcher, are pretty awesome. Albeit the book itself isn't great.
posted by griphus at 11:05 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I believe there are a few (including the big ending) in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

The book is definitely worth your time!
posted by jbenben at 11:06 AM on December 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


The little-known "Spud and Cochise" has a really cool battle in which one of the participant's magic is based on swearing.
posted by Zed at 11:07 AM on December 17, 2010


David Eddings' Belgariad had a few good sorcerer fights.
posted by mooders at 11:07 AM on December 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


Nearly every book in the Wheel of Time series has a great wizard battle.
posted by ripley_ at 11:09 AM on December 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


My favorites are all in Tigana Gavriel Scott Key.
posted by bukvich at 11:10 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


The best in the Harry Potter series is the entire Battle for Hogwarts at the end of the last book.
posted by something something at 11:10 AM on December 17, 2010


One that sticks with me is Ursula La Guin's 'A Wizard Of Earthsea'
posted by piato at 11:11 AM on December 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


I have enjoyed the magical battles in the Sword of Truth series.
posted by mockjovial at 11:12 AM on December 17, 2010


I would say that the battle at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in the Ministry of Magic (mostly the Department of Mysteries) is also pretty great.
posted by purlgurly at 11:13 AM on December 17, 2010


I rather liked the Harry vs. Voldemort sequence in the fourth HP book. But it's not that lightning-ish.
posted by SMPA at 11:14 AM on December 17, 2010


Oh yeah, I forgot all about Johnathan Strange, that whole book was great. Great stuff so far!
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 11:14 AM on December 17, 2010


A lot of the earlier Shannara books by Terry Brookes has some good magical battles.
posted by zizzle at 11:14 AM on December 17, 2010


Not exactly epic magic-duelling, but a lot of wizard-fights hinge on discovering the opponent's true name or darkest secret (this happens a lot in Jack Vance, e.g.). There's a funny twist on this that's stuck with me since my geeky childhood in Marion Zimmer Bradley's story "Someone Else's Magic" (in Lythande), in which a spell-battle turns on an opportune bit of sexual invective.
posted by RogerB at 11:19 AM on December 17, 2010


I don't know how the books hold up overall for a non-high-school reader, but I remember Dragonlance Legends having a battle between Raistlin and Fistandantilus (ooh, I feel a little embarrassed to know that name!) somewhere in the three-book series. It wasn't described in minute detail, but it felt epic. I think there was a cool one between Raistlin and Dalamar, too, but that was more of a Darth-Vader-crushing-an-obvious-inferior kind of battle.

Gandalf and Saruman was like that, too - exciting, but not a close fight.
posted by ignignokt at 11:20 AM on December 17, 2010


Merlin and Madam Mim in the original version of The Once and Future King, which is pretty much a version of transformation battles in Celtic literature.
posted by Abiezer at 11:28 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


The way magical battles are described in Robin McKinley's fiction is always interesting and intense to me, partially because it's mostly internal (very little actual lightning but lots of sorcery), yet still extremely tense. The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown probably have the most actual magical sword-swinging, but that's not to say that Rose Daughter, Spindle's End and (especially!) Deerskin don't have their own. Deerskin in particular is moving to me, because in the end it's not about the main character battling her worthless betrayal of a father so much as it is about battling her own shadow-self. But it's still a battle of magic.

Bonus: Sunshine really gets at how disgusting it would be to stake a vampire and have them explode into a charnel-house pudding all over you.

And for other great sorcerous YA litearture, it's been a long time, but I remember the magical battles in A Plague of Sorcerers and its sequel being especially fine.
posted by WidgetAlley at 11:29 AM on December 17, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Terry Brooks series "The Genesis of Shannara" has some great battle scenes involving the "Knights of the Word."
posted by Lone_Wolf at 11:30 AM on December 17, 2010


The Great and Secret Show
posted by heatvision at 11:32 AM on December 17, 2010


I believe bukvich is referring to Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. It's great, and the book I came in to recommend.
posted by jon1270 at 11:35 AM on December 17, 2010


There is all kinds of crazy magic stuff going on throughout Zelazny's Amber Chronicles, but it isn't all straight-up lightning bolt stuff.
posted by bitterkitten at 11:36 AM on December 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


You might want to read translations of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Lots of spells and wizardry battles in both.
posted by bardophile at 11:37 AM on December 17, 2010


Oh man, I remember shaking with excitement after Pug becomes A Great One in Magician by Raymond E Feist. In addition to that one, I think there were two big battle scenes in the second half of the book where he just whips everyone and closes the rift. Haven't read it since I was a kid and not sure if it holds up for me still, but I bet those action scenes are still awesome. Dang, I just want to go geek out and read them now...
posted by jng at 11:40 AM on December 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


There are definitely some good magical battles at various points in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman series.
posted by limeonaire at 11:45 AM on December 17, 2010


Seconding Tigana, and yes the Wheel of Time is packed with awesome magical battle sequences, both duels and battles. Speaking of which, Brandon Sanderson who is finishing The Wheel of Time also has some good combat scenes between allomancers in his Mistborn books - it's a mixture of metallurgy, sorcery, and wire fu.
posted by nowonmai at 11:50 AM on December 17, 2010


Ted Chiang's Understand is sci-fi, but the climax is essentially a Great Wizard Battle done in unusually creative terms.
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:11 PM on December 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


Hi everyone--this is my first comment. I registered for an account because I've been waiting for years for someone to ask me this very question. A simply fantastic magical battle can be found at the end of the extremely under-rated, hilarious, melancholy late seventies Peter Beagle novel, The Folk of the Air. It's a partly a transfiguration battle, it's fairly long but extremely varied and the forms it takes give a lot of information about the two women involved and the world of the book. It's also (to me) very beautifully and vividly described.
posted by Frowner at 12:17 PM on December 17, 2010 [4 favorites]


Apologies in advance for rambling on; this is a fun topic for me.

Speaking of Sanderson, Warbringer is available as a free pdf from his site and has some very unique spellcasting battles. I know some feel that his characterization is a little lacking, but Warbringer has one of the most creative magic systems that I've run into in fiction, and I personally enjoy his characters for the most part. His new book The Way of Kings has some fun magic-fu in it as well, but I don't recall any standout battles between practitioners rather than a single practitioner versus an army of "mundanes". Mistborn is also great fun, but for some reason that particular set of "magic" doesn't scream wizard to me; I've always thought allomancers were more akin to the physical adepts from Shadowrun.

Also, not sure they fit into your qualifications exactly, but all of Robin McKinley's books are fantastic, as mentioned upthread, as are Guy Gavriel Kay's. GGK's books tend to read more like historical fiction with a faint of mysticism rather than swords-and-sorcery Harry Potter-style magic. I suppose Tigana is the best from that perspective, but the sorcerors are much more army support than direct duelists, from what I remember. The Fionavar Tapestries books might work as well; they're in the vein of Lord of the Rings, but much shorter and with a Welsh/Arthurian bent.

They're a bit "fluffier" than the rest of these recommendations, but some of Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar books have good spellcaster duels. The primary series that come to mind are The Last Herald-Mage Trilogy, Vows and Honor and The Mage Winds Trilogy. YMMV as to whether any of these could remotely qualify as "literature", of course~ Misty is a guilty pleasure of mine, but she's no George R. R. Martin or GGK.

And on preview: speaking of Peter Beagle, you might consider The Last Unicorn as well. Schmendrick is one of my favorite wizards, and it's criminal that I'd forgotten him until just now. I can't recall now if he actually duels against another magician, however, or if he's primarily his own worst enemy. (Which means it's time to drag out my copy and re-read, so thanks for the reminder, Frowner!)
posted by ashirys at 12:31 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


The battle at the end of Lyndon Hardy's Master of the Five Magics is a beauty.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 12:58 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


I really enjoyed the magic system and climactic battle in The Magicians. It's not especially epic, but it's got some nice flavor to it and has a pretty concrete model for how spells would be cast and how that would work when you're trying to do it in combat (especially in a world where magicians aren't really supposed to be having fights in the first place).

And yeah, seconding that Black Company reference. Definitely try that.
posted by heresiarch at 1:17 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Best fight between wizards was clearly the arcane duel which concludes Deryni Rising by Katherine Kurtz. Unproven boy king squares off against his father's killer in the midst of a coronation.

Many of her other Deryni series have much more subtle uses of magic but this is all out and well worth a read.
posted by mfoight at 1:38 PM on December 17, 2010


There is all kinds of crazy magic stuff going on throughout Zelazny's Amber Chronicles, but it isn't all straight-up lightning bolt stuff.

The Second Chronicles of Amber for this one. The series concludes (more or less) with an epic spell battle that's actually kind of silly. You get the impression Zelazny was maybe getting a bit bored.

And I'll add another Zelazny work, the two book series Changeling and Madwand. Nowhere near as good as Amber but lots of magical battles and a pretty unique visualization of magic in general.
posted by elendil71 at 2:34 PM on December 17, 2010


And on preview: speaking of Peter Beagle, you might consider The Last Unicorn as well. Schmendrick is one of my favorite wizards, and it's criminal that I'd forgotten him until just now. I can't recall now if he actually duels against another magician, however, or if he's primarily his own worst enemy. (Which means it's time to drag out my copy and re-read, so thanks for the reminder, Frowner!)

I came in just to recommend this. The part where Schmendrick finally gets his shit together is some of the best magic-battle prose ever written.
posted by vorfeed at 3:16 PM on December 17, 2010


Seconding The Magicians for spell mechanics and the final battle is nice.
posted by lyam at 3:20 PM on December 17, 2010


Also enjoyed final battle from The Magicians.

I've been watching a lot of Avatar: The Last Airbender and while I'm not sure it fits the "literature" angle, I really enjoy the bending combat, particularly the character of the different styles of fighting as they correspond to the various elements and personalities. Some of the sequences are short, but some of the encouters are pretty epic.
posted by weston at 4:20 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Seconding ashirys's recommendation of Lackey - in particular, the sorceress Kethry's arcane duels in the Vows and Honour trilogy - I think the first book especially, Oathbound; the final confrontation in Brightly Burning (link has spoilers); and the duel near the end of Magic's Pawn, in which Vanyel's opponent tries to convince Vanyel to join him.
posted by paduasoy at 5:06 PM on December 17, 2010


Pratchett, surprisingly, has quite a few of these in his Discworld series. What makes them fantastic are that they're fought by unlikely protagonists - Granny Weatherwax, Susan Sto Helit, Mustrum Ridcully and even Rincewind (who only knows one spell, but it's a doozy.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:52 PM on December 17, 2010


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