Magic systems are one of those things in books that is easy to overlook if executed well.
But without a good magic system, the protagonist can end up too powerful way too early or magical solutions can feel too convenient, like a deus ex machina.
For this article, I weighed creativity, use of constraints and rules, and, lastly, how much attention the series gets because of its magic system.
3. The Graceling Realm - Gracelings
What if magical abilities were limitless in scope--but also in how useful (or useless) they are?
In Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realm, some individuals are born with rare and extreme abilities, known as Gracelings. These abilities can range from being able to read minds, having super strength, being an unmatched sharpshooter of arrows, to … being able to hold their breath for a really long time.
That’s right! Not all Graces are so dramatic or even useful.
But that’s what makes this magic system both so creatively limitless while also seeming realistic and balanced.
Throughout the kingdoms of the Graceling realms, Gracelings are prized as soldiers or mathematicians or within any number of jobs--and they’re conscripted into the king’s service by law in most regions.
Gracelings aren’t always born with their Graces. Some develop their Grace later in childhood, but one truth exists for them all: no matter what Grace they have, all Gracelings have heterochromia eyes. This means that a Graceling may have one brown and one green eye or one purple and one blue eye, for example.
This trait is usually the only tell that a person is a Graceling. Most folks fear them because it is usually not apparent what Grace a Graceling has upon appearance, only the fact that they have some special talent.
What makes Gracelings great:
A person’s Grace is a mystery until they happen to test themselves in a way that reveals their hidden talent.
The types of Graces are seemingly endless. This fact is balanced by the fact that Graces can be inconsequential talents, like exceptional eyesight, or they can be inhuman talents like mind control.
Additionally, even the Graces that seem superhuman are often limited by their specificity.
One version of the mind-reading Grace allows the Graceling that has it to read another’s thoughts--but only if those thoughts concern the Graceling him or herself. Another version of the Grace allows the Graceling to read only the other person’s desires.
2. Grishaverse - the Grisha
Alright, I’ll admit it. The Grisha are probably one of the more well-known aspects of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books, if not the most.
Even considering that, I’m still a firm believer that the magic system within them deserves more attention. Particularly because of how the Grisha magic system is underpinned by defined rules and explained in such a clean, simple way--and yet, Bardugo continues to demolish expectations of how magic works in her own books.
Throughout the Grishaverse series, there exist three kinds of magic users, or Grisha: Corporalki, Etherealki and Materialki. These can be understood loosely as healers/magical fighters, elemental magic users, and alchemists, respectively.
What makes Grisha great:
Although there are three main kinds (called orders) of Grisha, these broad categories allow for new types of magic to exist under each. For example, summoners (Etherealki), for the most part, can summon only elements of nature such as fire, water, or wind. However, as is proven in Shadow and Bone, this can and does extend to other elements, and we see that there are Grisha who summon sun and shadow.
Leigh Bardugo continues to develop this theme and question posed upon the Grishaverse’s magic system throughout her books. Readers see the definitions of the orders of the Grisha challenged to accommodate new types of magic.
This allows for previously unheard-of abilities. The coolest part: the existence of these new types of Grisha don’t violate the laws and constraints of the magic system.
1. Serpent and Dove - witches
I know what you’re thinking!
Shelby Mahurin’s Serpent & Dove series isn’t about a magic system. It’s an epic enemies-to-lovers story about a witch-hunter and a witch forced together in a marriage of convenience.
Well, there’s a bit more to it than that, but I’m guessing that’s what you think of when you hear the title. That’s fair.
But the magic system in Serpent & Dove is what lands it firmly at the top of this list. It’s creative and interesting--and has an intense twist on the idea of magic costs.
The magic users, called witches, are divided into covens. There are the Dames Rouges, or blood mages, and the Dames Blanches. In Belterra, witches are condemned by the church, which regularly trains witch hunters to catch them and burn them at the stake for the crime of having magic.
The Dames Rouges spill their own blood as the price to cast magic. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of blood magic. What better way to balance out powerful magic?
And yet, the Dames Blanches are even cooler.
Their magic deals in symbolic acts of balance. Although it’s slightly harder to pin down than say, elemental magic, Mahurin still manages to show how it works: the witch will “see” the pattern between two things, almost like hallucinating a “string” between people or objects, and after paying the toll, the magic will carry out her desire.
This price can be anything from forgetting a cherished memory in order to wipe another’s memory to experiencing another’s pain in order to protect them from it.
What makes witches great:
-The witches’ magic is all about balance. Whether the toll is blood or something more symbolic, all magic in Serpent & Dove is a double-edged sword.
-For example, this means that if a Dame Blanche wished to kill her enemy, she would have to mirror that action herself. The magic demands she take a life in balance, one she probably cherishes.
-Though the magic in Serpent & Dove seems all-powerful in scope--any witch is presumably capable of killing people at will or escaping from her enemies if she sees the right pattern to do it--the price either in blood or symbolic acts makes her magic not all-powerful.
-The symbolic tolls on witches are a unique spin on the cost of casting magic that doesn’t rely on things usually seen in fantasy fiction such as physical fatigue or a lack of knowledge.
What is your favorite magic system in a book? Do you prefer magic to have strict, clear limitations or do you prefer a more mysterious magic?
This article was written by Joy Lewis.
Joy Lewis is a young adult fantasy author, lifelong reader, mother of peppers, and tamer of orange tabbies. She writes stories with epic battles, twisty magic, and lots of protagonists. When she's not writing, she's trying to keep her plants from dying in the Tennessee heat. For more information, visit her at www.joylewisauthor.com.