Bookfilter: Magical Economies
August 13, 2021 8:47 AM   Subscribe

I've recently enjoyed a couple books that dive deep on what magic costs--Sanjena Sathian's Gold Diggers and Naomi Novik's A Deadly Education--and I'm looking for more to read along those lines: detailed mechanics and economic systems, with magic as the currency and thoughtful attention to economic metaphors. Suggestions?

(Mild spoilers follow.) Something I really enjoyed in Gold Diggers and Deadly Education is how hard they ride an economic metaphor, with magic as a sort of wealth that is earned through labor and that can be hoarded by families or elites, leading to inequitable systems that mirror our own. I'm looking for other fantasy books & stories treating magic as a kind of currency, whether as a kind of video game point system, or power that's harvested by gods from their worshipers, or as the basis of a rational economy.

Other books I know that do this a bit, though not as comprehensively: Ann Leckie, The Raven Tower; Jo Walton, Tooth and Claw; various books by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett & Max Gladstone where faith/attention from worshipers is a kind of capital that gods require.

Can you recommend some more? SF and horror are OK too. I'm not really looking for broader "you made a deal with the devil and now the debt must be paid" stories, or setups as simple as "casting a spell makes you tired." I want the minuscule technical details and overdesigned magical economic systems, the whuffie, the mana, the chittim, the plausible alchemy, the tradable credits, the stuff our dreams are made of. Thanks!
posted by miles per flower to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Novik’s previous two books, Spinning Silver and Uprooted, also definitely have economic metaphors in their magic systems.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:56 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]

Most of my immediate suggestion are already in the question. But, in case it happens to be useful, Vinge's "Rainbows End" has a bit to do with the economy of magic-like powers in a virtual environment. Stephenson's "The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O." includes some trading of goods for magic, but it's not really the main theme.
posted by eotvos at 9:18 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]

Making Money by Terry Pratchett considers what the foundation for an economy really is and ponders a golem-based standard. It's not just a goofy idea. What is the basis for money, really, if not the labor it will buy?
posted by SPrintF at 9:21 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]

(In the above comment, I should have said "Stephenson and Galland." Sorry)
posted by eotvos at 9:28 AM on August 13

In the comic Saga, magic requires secrets to cast, the bigger the magic, the bigger the secret.

Ra was a very interesting novella in that magic is a very scientific system but there are fundamental physics problems at the heart, such as where the energy comes from and who or what "hears" you say a magic spell. (It's free to read or download here)

The web serial Delve basically isekais the protagonist into a classic MMO style RPG, and he learns to take advantage of the math that governs the magic system and basically break it. Lots of descriptions of exact spell costs, how long could I maintain this aura for while simultaneously using this amplification spell and so on. (It's more interesting than it sounds.)
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:04 AM on August 13

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is fanfic but it's book length. I imagine it's held up well but it was a minute ago I read it, so ymmv. As I recall, there is a great bit where Harry works out how to arbitrage between Galleons and Sickles.
posted by tivalasvegas at 10:42 AM on August 13

This is a bit of a spoiler for a plot point in the first book of the YA series Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

The system there has magic that derives directly from pain. The main character doesn't find out for a while, and it's a bit of a shock to realize that all the magic you have seen so far has been created from pain. It also leaves things open for ugly systems of forced magic and some people whose relationship to their magic is self-flagellating in both literal and metaphorical ways.
posted by gideonfrog at 10:46 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson had a magic system called awakening, where mages hold a reservoir of "biochromatic breath" which can be used to awaken items and gives you some other benefits when you're holding it. But each person only naturally has one breath, so they are harvested from other people.
posted by euphoria066 at 11:59 AM on August 13

If dragons count as magic, try Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series.
posted by bluebird at 12:04 PM on August 13

You might like Farland's The Runelords? The premise of the magic is that people can transfer a skill or ability to another person, but it's permanent and more or less incapacitates the giver for life, so feudal lords end up with a lot of powers, and their servants are broken people.
posted by tautological at 12:38 PM on August 13

The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham and The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone.

You might try Chinese xianxia series where economies are usually based around crystalized magic (qi) and special techniques for using and harvesting it. I can't really think of any that are good enough for me to recommend to someone not already used to reading dubious translations, though.
posted by forbiddencabinet at 2:45 PM on August 13 [2 favorites]

Not quite on target but close, An Unkindness of Magicians by Kay Howard? (I spent all afternoon trying to remember which book this was and it was a fun distraction, so thanks!
posted by chocotaco at 3:43 PM on August 13 [2 favorites]

Also came here to recommend An Unkindness of Magicians as fitting your bill! And also Spinning Silver, although it's not as explicit about it. (But I really, really love that book.) N K Jemison's Broken Earth books (starting with The Fifth Season), maybe.

I think Trudi Canavan's book Thief of Magic might fit, but I got bored after a few chapters and dropped it, so ymmv.

I'm also taking note of the recs above, this is a topic I greatly enjoy! (I have read the HP fic above, but I regret doing so. Again, ymmv.)

Oh! Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series. (The first book's not great but the rest really are, especially if you like clever characters solving problems with odds stacked against them by going sideways around the system rules that everyone else follows.) Power is how many Furies, which are basically elemental pokemon, you can control. Powerful ones are hoarded and passed down family lines. There are also some REALLY good non-human races and a lot of pretty fun battles which are Roman Legion tactics mixed with the aforementioned pokemon. It's hard to describe without sounding totally ridiculous, but it seriously leans into the premise and delivers.
posted by Cheerwell Maker at 5:24 PM on August 13 [2 favorites]

Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle is very long, but it does have a conservation of magical energy concept where you need a source of energy to draw on for your spells or else you can literally kill yourself by casting a spell too powerful. However orthogonal to that limitation is the concept of scarcity or cottage industries, where things that require talent or skill can be "magicked" en masse and indeed were used to fund a war. I tried to be vague to avoid spoilers. And certainly this concept is only forefront in a fraction of this enormous tetralogy. It's also considered young adult but I and my adult daughter both read and enjoyed the series. FWIW.
posted by forthright at 5:50 PM on August 13

One of the Seanan McGuire Wayward Children books, "In an Absent Dream" hinges very much on understanding the rules of the world in which the protagonist finds herself, and deals a lot with how they play out.

I think it would work on its own, even if you don't read the rest of the series.
posted by DebetEsse at 6:17 PM on August 13

Foundryside is a good novel that's centered around the idea of access to magic giving certain parts of a society economic (and other) advantages.

It's pretty well written and I think it checks a lot of the boxes you mention. It's the first book of a ongoing trilogy.
posted by Fister Roboto at 7:24 PM on August 13 [1 favorite]

In the Worldquake books (YA), there’s a whole system of magical currency one earns in various ways (eating fermented foods, doing good things for the community, and meditating among them) and spend doing magic, purchasing magical objects, traveling to magical places you’re not from, etc.
posted by centrifugal at 9:56 PM on August 13 [1 favorite]

In Rainbow Rowell’s trilogy that begins with Carry On, magic is based on the language that muggle-equivalents use. So, if everybody is walking around humming a commercial jingle, that phrase becomes imbued with power and thus available for spell casting.
posted by Orlop at 2:29 PM on August 15

I'm reading The Green Bone Saga by Fonda Lee. In a past life the author got an MBA from Stanford, and her books are built around the economic, regulatory, and social impact of magic. I also think she handles Asian culture very thoughtfully (speaking as an Asian American). It's basically The Godfather with magic jade and Asian-inspired, so lots of fun.
posted by hotchocolate at 6:33 AM on August 16 [2 favorites]

Another Brandon Sanderson possibility is the Mistborn series. Different metals have different magical effects, and the scarcity of a fictional metal called "atium" has a significant effect on the politics and economy of the world. I'm not sure if this completely ticks your boxes, because I don't think anybody would describe Mistborn as being primarily about the economics of magic -- there's a whole lot going on, of which the economics is only one part. But it's a part that ends up intersecting the plot in interesting ways.

Also, you might check out Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away, which was written in response to the 1973 oil crisis, and I think is one of the first fantasy books to treat magic as a non-renewable resource. I remember it as being very much about the impact of scarcity on society, but I should mention it has been decades since I read it and I can't testify to how well it holds up.
posted by yankeefog at 2:48 AM on August 17

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