Every week, Fantasy Review Barn runs a feature where they seek out examples of fantasy tropes. Other bloggers are welcome to join in, finding their own books to match the given topic.
This week’s topic is Awesome Displays of Magic:
Sometimes magic can be subtle. Who wants that? Big explosions or acts of creation, death and destruction or acts of awe inspiring wonder. If your world has magic then why not show it off?
I found this topic rather difficult – lots of examples sprang to mind, but they were almost all urban fantasy, which a nagging part of me feels is slightly cheating. So I didn’t pick any of the crowning moments of wizardy in The Dresden Files (though pulling a satellite out orbit to obliterate a mansion would definitely count) or similar books, but confined myself to quasi-medieval, more traditional fantasy.
And at that point, it became hard to think of examples – magic too liberally applied tends to come across as a cop-out, not awesome. Still, I managed to find three examples that I felt were sufficiently awe-inspiring, and weren’t just handwaves for hopeless situations.
1. Qiro Anturasi – Michael A. Stackpole, The Age of Discovery
It’s been several years since I read any of The Age of Discovery books, and I don’t have them available at the moment, so please forgive any inaccuracies in my explanation.
Magic in the trilogy is a natural extension of mastery in a skill: a swordsman becomes a good swordsman, then an exceptional swordsman, then a swordsman who is so skilled that every stroke calls forth and controls wild magic. People become so skilled that their talents transcend the normal and become magical.
This isn’t just confined to combat – you could achieve mastery in any discipline with similar effects. An expert administrator wields magic through exceptional filing, an expert courtesan can bewitch with a single glance.
Qiro Anturasi makes maps, and he is very good at it. A good cartographer makes accurate maps, an expert cartographer creates reality by mapping it. Qiro calls continents into being by adding them to his maps – they are so accurate that reality reflects them, not the other way around.
With a stroke of a pen, he creates a vast new continent, peoples it, and starts a colossal war. All without leaving his study.
2. Skulduggery Pleasant – Derek Landy, Skulduggery Pleasant
Edit: I belatedly realised that Skulduggery Pleasant is in fact closer to urban fantasy than the more standard epic or heroic variants, and therefore doesn’t match the remit I gave myself above. I’m not removing him, but I am sorry – the stricture totally slipped my mind while I was trying to think of more entries.
The Skulduggery Pleasant books are awesome. The basic concept – a teenage girl discovers a secret magical world – is not a new one, but the execution elevates this series above the herd. Like the Edge Chronicles, these books are nominally aimed at children, but are a little darker than you would expect. They’re also engaging, well-written, and more than averagely complex.
The eponymous Skulduggery is both a skeleton and a wizard. He has countless moments of brilliance and flair, but one stands out above all. It doesn’t actually occur during the books, and later sequels tarnished the moment slightly, but it still stands out as both ridiculously cool and typical of the character.
Skulduggery did not start out as a skeleton. Initially, he was a normal-looking human wizard. Well before the first book begins, in the middle of a bloody war between rival mages, Skulduggery is killed.
For any other character, that would be the end. They’d be written out of the story and mentioned only in the protagonist’s backstory. Skulduggery is not a normal character. After a little while of being dead, seeing the war effort falter without him, he gets back up.
That’s his moment. He’s dead, and decides not to be anymore, because it isn’t convenient. Corpses don’t have agency, but this one takes it, buys a new suit and a classic car, then continues his life from where he left off. Fantasy is a genre in which resurrection is not unheard of, but Skulduggery Pleasant is the only character I know of who orchestrates his own revival with nothing more than willpower and style.
3. Esmerelda Weatherwax – Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies
Pratchett’s magic users tend not to actually use magic that much – a running theme in the Discworld books is that the possession of incredible power is far less important than the wisdom to understand when and how to use it.
Pratchett’s witches instead practice “headology”, a far more efficient and less flashy discipline that doesn’t require posturing and grandstanding. That doesn’t mean, as several characters find out to their cost, that the witches aren’t capable of magic: they just prefer other methods.
In Lords and Ladies, Granny Weatherwax is old and facing death. Unarmed and vastly outnumbered, she goes out to do battle with the cruel queen of the elves. She gets struck down, because that’s what happens when a tired old woman who stopped chasing power decades ago goes head to head with an energised, immortal and incredibly powerful being.
But when the dust settles and the bees return to the hives, the elf queen is banished back between the stones and the crone is standing again, because that’s what happens when the tired old woman is Granny Weatherwax. Her magic isn’t dramatic and flashy, because that doesn’t matter: she can split her consciousness in a thousand directions, ride the winds in a borrowed mind, find the crack in the universe and twist. There are no fireworks, lightning bolts, or ragged-edged portals, just an old woman standing on grass of Lancre and refusing to kneel. Even facing overwhelming force in an unwinnable fight, Esmeralda Weatherwax is not someone to bet against.
None of my examples are particularly display-based, I now realise. Important events occur, and they demonstrate incredible power, but they are rather subtle: a line on a map, standing up, refusing to kneel. They don’t look wonderful or destroy armies worth of orcs, but each one is massive event with far-reaching consequences that shows the character’s core.
The post on Fantasy Review Barn is here, and in addition to that list, there are links there to many other bloggers with their own take on the idea. Next week’s topic is The Ace.