Best depictions of magic in fiction?
October 22, 2010 7:14 PM   Subscribe

What are some short stories or novels (probably in the fantasy genre, but not necessarily) with the most awesome, clever, and/or thought-provoking depictions and conceptions of magic?
posted by shivohum to Writing & Language (40 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
The Wheel of Time series has a pretty fascinating and original concept of magic and magic-users (its concepts of weaving, channeling, the idea that magic can be tainted), although since mentioned short stories it might be a bit involved for your liking (the author is dead, and the twelve volume series is still going). It's a great read though, especially the early books.
posted by billypilgrim at 7:20 PM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Larry Niven, The Magic Goes Away.
posted by emyd at 7:36 PM on October 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

The graphic novel The Life Eaters had what I thought was a unique take on magic. It is based on a David Brin novella called "Thor Meets Capt. American." I haven't read the original Brin novella yet, but I wholeheartedly recommend the graphic novel.
posted by marxchivist at 7:37 PM on October 22, 2010

Karen Miller's The Innocent Mage and its sequels.
posted by Neofelis at 7:44 PM on October 22, 2010

The Young Wizards series, though meant for teens, has stayed with me through the years. It's an eight-book series now. Magic happens through the use of language; wizardry is a choice on the part of individuals. Magic happens through the Speech, which convinces things - metal, or trees, or air - to do as the wizard wishes. It's really lovely.
posted by quadrilaterals at 7:50 PM on October 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

I thought The Name of The Wind did some really cool things with the concept of magic. Also the book is awesome.
posted by frankdrebin at 7:56 PM on October 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

Mercedes Lackey has something that I think is an interesting approach to magic in her "Fairy Godmother" series, with "The Tradition" being the source and impetus behind most magic in the world.
posted by galadriel at 8:06 PM on October 22, 2010

Garth Nix's Abhorsen series. The Abhorsen is sort of a necromancer on the side of good, putting undead things back into death.
posted by fings at 8:07 PM on October 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

I've always been fascinated by the magic system in Modesitt's Recluce books.

Modesitt's fantasy novels are known for their unusually rigorous system of magic, in contrast to typical fantasy universes where magic is ill-defined. Within the Recluce universe, magic is manifest as a person's ability to harness the natural order or chaos inherent in matter. The feats of magic that are possible rely on the user's understanding not only of order or chaos, but in the interaction between the two and how they occur in balance in nature. Modesitt is unusual in fantasy writing in that he shows how the use of order and chaos affects all aspects of society. For example, his order wizards have jobs—they are carpenters, coopers, smiths, and engineers—all areas where order gives an added understanding. The chaos wizards are mostly enforcers, but can take on tasks like road-building when it is in their interest.
posted by worldswalker at 8:08 PM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

For strange magic in 'our' world, Last Call by Tim Powers and Mockingbird by Sean Stewart are really worth your time.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:12 PM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Magicians, for sure. Not so much for the mechanics of magic, but the way magic is used as a metaphor is pretty amazing and touching.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:19 PM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic series was a favorite of mine when I was younger. The four protagonists are skilled at "ambient magic."

There are lots of fun details in the Circle of Magic universe. Thread mages weave magic in a literal sense, imbuing cloth and other fabrics with magical powers. Blacksmith mages not only control fire and earth, they can forge magic into metal. Plant mages can store magic in potted trees! How's that for potential energy?

You can find more about the series here. I've never read beyond the first quartet, but later books also seem to revolve around magical misfits.

Having mages perform elemental magic may not be all that groundbreaking, but I really appreciated the way Pierce tried to mix trade crafts and spell-casting. I think there's even a cooking mage.

You might also like stories with magical music, a la the Pied Piper of Hameln.
posted by ElectricBlue at 8:28 PM on October 22, 2010

Lois McMaster Bujold always does creative things with magic when she writes fantasy.
posted by ansate at 8:53 PM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Sharing Knife series by Lois McMaster Bujold. The society is split between magic users and non, and the books deal with the relationship between these interdependent groups in a really interesting way, as well as dealing with magic as an inherent skill in a way that is unique. It's also a nice love story.
posted by freshwater at 8:55 PM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend
A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin,
The Silent Tower by Barbara Hambly
and the Laundry series by mefi's own Charlie Stross.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:21 PM on October 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Long ago, I read The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay. The rules of magic in that book stuck with me. Every mage has a "source," another person whose life force provides the energy for their magic. The importance of that relationship and the cost of magic made for some pretty interesting storytelling.
posted by richyoung at 9:43 PM on October 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

I suggest The Coldfire Trilogy by Celia S. Friedman. The setting is one of magic fueled by meaningful sacrifice. There is an excellent explanation of it in the first few chapters of the first book, but I am sure that many other people will suggest it as well. Also, there is the Magister series by the same author, but it is not currently complete.
posted by slavlin at 10:47 PM on October 22, 2010

Nthing The Name of The Wind. It's good - though not flawless - book, but the magic system is especially good and above average. The Taltos books, by Brust, have an interesting system in that it's kind of two systems - one of witchcraft, and one of i guess you could call it "high wizardry".

Jack Vance's Dying Earth novels were basically responsible for magic as how it's envisioned in DandD, and thus very progressive and complicated and influential in its time.
posted by smoke at 11:05 PM on October 22, 2010

Jonathan Stroud's Bartimeus Trilogy... the only magic tech is that humans summon and control demons (djinn, etc.) who do all the dirty work. Extended riffing on slavery, compulsion, alien moralities ensue.
posted by gregglind at 11:27 PM on October 22, 2010

The Wizard of Earthsea Trilogy Ursula K LeGuiin

"If you could name it you could master it, maybe, little wizard . . . Would you like to know its name?". . . .
posted by The Lady is a designer at 12:41 AM on October 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Possibly a bit left-field after some of the answers above, but what about Granny Weatherwax's magic in Terry Pratchett's Discworld stories? As near as I can make out, her magic is a blend of the "real" thing and what she calls "headology" with some nature mysticism mixed in. It's different from the wizards' magic, which is much more traditional bolts-of-fire stuff. The interesting thing is that within the context both kinds of magic are real but different and neither practitioner has a lot of use for the other kind. also, Granny W's kind of magic is a bit different from that of the other witches.
posted by Logophiliac at 12:49 AM on October 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Which kind of reminds me of the magic and mundane world concepts laid out by Piers Anthony
posted by The Lady is a designer at 12:54 AM on October 23, 2010

The Master of the Five Magics - a thoroughly thought out, logical system of magic - times five! With bonus meta-magic!

A Spell for Chameleon - I loved this book in HS but find it nearly unreadable now. Still, I like the explanation of why Xanth has magic - and how it manifests as individual talents.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court - a terrific example of Clarke's Third Law ("any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"), written before Arthur C. Clarke even arrived on the scene ...

Also, seconding everything drjimmy11 said about The Magicians. An amazing book.
posted by zanni at 3:09 AM on October 23, 2010

Diana Wynne Jones has some wonderfully thought-provoking depictions of magic in most of her books. Off the top of my head, the Chronicles of Chrestomanci are the best example. The Wikipedia summary of the first book, The Lives of Christopher Chant, puts it pretty well:

According to the internal chronology, this novel is the first in the Chrestomanci series, so named because their plots, some to greater degrees than others, involve a series of powerful nine-lived enchanters who each carry the title of Chrestomanci. This is also one of the many Diana Wynne Jones novels that are based on the Series of worlds concept, or the idea that there are many Earths, each the result of a different possibility or choice made in history. The worlds are grouped into Series, with similar worlds being in the same Series. Christopher Chant is originally from Series 12 and World 12A (the first world in Series 12; our world is 12B, which has no magic).
"Chrestomanci" is the title of a government-appointed enchanter who governs the use of magic throughout all the Series, requiring that they can travel from world to world.

My favorite of the bunch is either the third or the fourth installment. In the former, spells crafted by two great Italian houses locked in a bitter feud are sung in the streets; in the latter, set in a bleak English boarding school, an anonymous note saying "Someone in this class is a witch" is tantamount to a death threat.

DWJ's known as a children's author, but she's written for adults as well. One that seems particularly appropriate for MetaFilter is Deep Secret, which takes place at a sci-fi convention:

'Phantasmacon' feels like a real convention, and the few in-jokes are unobtrusive. Only those in the know will detect, for example, the lovingly observed depiction of a hemidemisemiconscious Neil ('I'm not a morning person') Gaiman confronting or failing to confront breakfast at a Milford UK conference. The con ambience provides a logical enough background for derring-do in which wounded centaurs are smuggled to safety while fans cry 'What a marvellous costume!', sigils of ultimate foulness appear scrawled on hotel bedroom doors, the kitchens get ransacked for magical ingredients, and the placing of a geas on a black mage in the hotel lobby becomes, inadvertently, a warmly applauded public performance. Few authors would risk the large-scale set-piece involving sinister ensemble magic, flashing swords, rampant manifestations of a horrid Goddess, and Imperial beam weaponry -- all in a crowded convention hall where the Guest of Honour is struggling to deliver his speech.

She has a chameleonic (that word exists??) ability to fashion intricate and engaging magical worlds, but her subtly sarcastic attitude towards the fantasy genre and its tropes alone makes her work well worth a read.
posted by Devika at 4:36 AM on October 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow, I'm the first person to say Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell? For me that was the easily the most convincing version of magic I've read, because there IS no system to it. It draws a lot from the magic-as-metal-illness/the irrational/drug-induced state of Lud-in-the-Mist, a weird little book from the 1920s- you might start with that as it is much shorter.
posted by Erasmouse at 6:17 AM on October 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

Shadowland, by Peter Straub is a wonderful, fairly unknown book. It was almost 30 years agao that I read it, but I still recall being amazing in the way you could never quite grasp what was really happening, and what was magic.

First link is a wiki stub with a paragraph on the basic plot.

This link is much better, but be warned it is a little spoilery as far as how some characters end up by the book's end.

Hope you read/enjoy.
posted by timsteil at 6:23 AM on October 23, 2010

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson has a unique (in my reading) conception of magic. Some people have abilities based on eating certain metals. I have described it poorly, but it's actually really cool. The implications of this within society and the economy are a major part of the books.
posted by Adridne at 6:26 AM on October 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness trilogy is interesting not so much for the actual magic but for what it does to you - you can either use your magic, and every bit you use will hasten your death, or you can not use your magic and go insane.
posted by penguinliz at 7:24 AM on October 23, 2010

Seconding cstross's Laundry series. Very clever look at mathematics as magic.
posted by Jilder at 10:01 AM on October 23, 2010

In Ursula Le Guin's short story "Solitude", available in her anthology The Birthday of the World, "magic" is defined as trying to gain influence over another person.

Also seconding everything Devika said about Diana Wynne Jones.
posted by Pallas Athena at 10:12 AM on October 23, 2010

The Lord Darcy mysteries by Randall Garrett (plus some imitators after the author's death). A series of mostly short stories set in an alternate England where Plantagenets still sit on the throne of Scone and magic has been codified as a science, involving a detective modeled after Sherlock Holmes and his trusty assistant Sean O'Lochlainn, Master Sorcerer. A truly inspired and original world with one of the best magical systems I've ever come across.
posted by scalefree at 1:34 PM on October 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thirding the Chrestomanci series and seconding the Earthsea series.
posted by of strange foe at 2:08 PM on October 23, 2010

2 nding The Magucans and Jonathan Strange, bit have academic versions vs. mystical versions of magic and I particularly liked the idea of magic being, at it's core kinda route and boring and hard.
posted by The Whelk at 8:12 AM on October 24, 2010

Seconding the Magicians. Studying magic seemed very similar to getting my Physics Bachelors.
posted by ye#ara at 4:31 PM on October 26, 2010

Detailing some more about Terry Pratchett's magic system:

Wizard magic(as shown in the Rincewind books and Unseen Academicals and Science of Discworld) is hilarious magical physics. You can levitate things, but the law of action and reaction means that if you aren't careful about it your brain will melt out of your ears. That's a paraphrase, by the way. The fundamental unit of magic is the Thaum, and it can be split, allowing Pratchett to make many nuclear engineering jokes and, to avoid spoilers, causing the plot of Science of Discworld. After the vision of great big works of magic given in Sourcery[sic], we don't see a lot of magic actually being done by wizards, because we learn that the entire system of wizardry has been formulated to prevent magic being done: instead, wizards do bureaucracy and eat absurdly large dinners. Balance a turkey on a fork, that sorta thing.

Witch's magic is not too much about that sort of brash flashyness. Anybody can be a witch with shiny runic knives and a crystal ball. Only the witches who are good at witching can witch with an apple-corer and an old globular green buoy, but the idea of stories and the narrative comes much more into witching than into wizarding. There have to be three witches doing things, just because there have to(alluding, of course, to Macbeth). In some cases, the villain also knows the power of stories and is thus very gender savvy, as in Witches Abroad, where the villain corrupts stories to her will. Basically, the great power of being a witch is in gender savvyness, and therefore Granny Weatherwax's Headology, and Nanny Ogg's enormous family and powers of looking-like-a-nice-old-lady.

I give these examples because otherwise you'd be looking through a dozen books for them. If you wish to hunt through, the Discworld books about magic(which don't simply have Rincewind in them, but talk a bit about magic) are, by a vague definition:

Interesting Times
The Lost Continent
The Colour of Magic(the first book)
The Light Fantastic
Unseen Academicals(the most recent book)
Science of Discworld(3 volumes, half nonfiction)

Equal Rites
Wyrd Sisters
Witches Abroad
Lords and Ladies
Carpe Jugulum
posted by curuinor at 5:41 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Wheel of Time is almost unreadably derivative from other books; if you liked it there, you'd probably like the original work at least as well. Or, it's really crap, and I feel bad seeing someone waste their time on it unless they've been warned.

All of these seem pretty straightforward recommendations. Adding a bit of a twist:

Can I suggest the Bene Geserrit in Frank Herbert's "Dune" as magic, or akin to it? Lots of stuff in there should qualify, although I think the books get significantly worse as they ramble on.

Neil Gaiman's (idea) for a story, "The Books of Magic", pretty much covers the Western European traditions.

Grant Morrison's graphic novels "The Invisibles" have several different takes on magic in the same book; Crowley's OTO, chaos magic, shamanism, with a bit of everything else tossed in.

You *really* open the gamut if you accept Arthur C. Clarke's "Third Law": Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
posted by talldean at 7:27 PM on October 26, 2010

Nthing Xanth, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and Earthsea. I loved Earthsea's brand of magic. Other Ursula LeGuin will be similarly affecting.

If you're not averse to YA books, try the first two or three Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer. Good stuff.

Also think about your definition of "magic," keeping in mind its proverbial indistinguishability from sufficiently advanced technology. Don't, as I did for a while, write off science fiction because you want fantasy.

An example writer is Sheri S. Tepper. The first novel that springs to mind is Beauty, but it's very different from her other stuff, which is a kind of lyrical science fiction I never found anywhere else. Grass, Family Tree, and The Gate to Women's Country are my favorites.
posted by kostia at 7:54 PM on October 26, 2010

Is it Grass that has the healer mystic with "Snake" as her magical companion?
posted by The Lady is a designer at 11:22 PM on October 26, 2010

Nthing, with others, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I read it this past summer and it's been years since I enjoyed a book that much, or plowed through a thousand or so pages with as much enthusiasm. Also, I just read Dawnthief which is a better than average sword and sorcery type book and I found the descriptions of magic in it to be pretty interesting... but since it is the first of a trilogy and I haven't read the rest yet I recommend it with caution.
posted by lordrunningclam at 6:00 AM on October 27, 2010

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