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  • Leah E. Welker

My Favorite Things, Part 1: Magic

A sailboat sitting on a still sea with stars shining above and reflected beneath. Photo credit: Johannes Plenio on Unsplash.

Time to brighten the mood in this blog, and I couldn't think of a better way to do that than to make a list of my favorite things to read and therefore write about. These are some of my favorite flavors of fantasy, if you will.

If you don't like these flavors, that's no biggie—everyone has their own tastes, and that's absolutely fine. But I'll warn you that if you don't, my books might not be for you, because you can be sure I'll cram these kinds of things in as much as I think I can get away with. After all, I write first for myself, for my own pure enjoyment, discovery, problem-solving, and healing. Then I try to make it appealing to my "minimal viable audience."

The Full(ish) List

This list isn't comprehensive, simply whatever came to mind on this Friday morning. (I'm sure I'm missing something.) It's also not in order of importance—more like thematic or relational order.

  1. Magic

  2. Romance

  3. Cool/unique settings

  4. Introspection (navel-gazing)

  5. Paragons

  6. "Soft" heroines

  7. Unsympathetic villains

  8. Hope

  9. Improvements to daily life (plumbing, community living, etc.)

I saw immediately that's too much to talk about in one post, so looks like this will be another post series! I'll try covering the first one now.


This one should be obvious, given how I like/write fantasy, which by very definition usually includes at least a light element of magic (or "technology" far beyond our comprehension). That said, what kinds of magic do I like to read/write about? That's the question!

My favorite flavors of magic tend to fall in the middle of the spectrum between hard (rational) magic and soft (nonrational) magic. Either extreme is too much for me.

The soft magic extreme

There are a few kinds of soft magic that don't really do it for me. For instance, I dislike magic that's based on combining a few exotic ingredients that make no sense together and have no logical relation to the end result. So the whole "eye of newt" and "horse hair from a two-week-old foal plucked at midnight at the full moon" . . . yeah, no. Not unless you can explain why a newt's eyes and that horse hair would be any more special than any other eye or horse hair and why the combination would logically cure a fever.

I'm amused by vocal-based magic systems in particular. Without any further justification on the author's part, I have a hard time swallowing the fact that just the right vocal vibration in the air taps into the magic force, but I particularly roll my eyes if the spell is in a sing-song rhyme. Is there some god/goddess of magic out there that's just waiting around, listening for keywords and awarding extra "power points" for a basic attempt at poetry? The writers usually never say.

People who have read a few books into my Blood of the Covenants series might point out that one of the main characters tends to talk to her magic, perhaps making it a vocal-based magic system, but I disagree: for one thing, she isn't saying the words out loud, as if it is the vocal vibrations themselves that unlock the magic. She is thinking the words, and she isn't thinking them as an incantation or rite. She is actually talking to the magic, acknowledging it, politely, as a force unto itself, even negotiating with it, and that's a very different thing to me. It isn't the words that unlock the power in that case but the relationship between her and her source of power. (Also, the internal dialogue helps her focus her intention, and as I'll discuss later, it's the intention part of magic that really does it for me; if, for example, more writers of vocal-based magic systems explicitly acknowledged that incantations are merely ways of focusing intent and that the words have no power in and of themselves, that would be all I'd need from them to buy in to the rest . . . even if I may still chuckle a little at the rhymes.)

However, I allow an exception for Garth Nix's Abhorsen series, because he does bother to give at least the token explanation that the magic words and symbols originate from the Charter that is the origin of their magic itself. Although, because the Charter is accessed more often just by sound (bells, whistling, even a well-executed clap if I recall correctly), perhaps it's not really a vocal-based system at all, and maybe that's why I find it much more palatable. If I remember right, the words are usually just labels for the Charter marks, for human convenience and learning, and don't have power in and of themselves.

And finally, I dislike a magic that is solely accessible by something like a wand or a staff. I'll allow for the magic to be enhanced by an object, but inaccessible entirely without it? Seems like someone isn't really magical if they have no magic access just because a stick is taken away from them. Ha, so, yes, that writes off Harry Potter's entire magic system for me, but I still love the series. Just not for its magic system. (I think it's the cool/unique settings, characters, hope, and improvements to daily life aspects.)

The hard magic extreme

So I do like some structure, rules, and limits to a magic system, but I don't really care to know all the details. I think I like knowing logical rules exist but not having to bother with them. For example, Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series had more detail than I cared to know (but because those details were easily skipable, it didn't rarely detracted from my reading experience).

I...can't really think of any other examples that I've read that fall into this hard-magic extreme. Maybe its rarer, or more common in adult fantasy (when I've tended to read YA or younger), or I've just avoided it that well. The magician Telemain in The Enchanted Forest Chronicles tends to go into too much technical detail, but the author, Patricia C. Wrede, does that deliberately for the comic effect, and his gibberish is unnecessary for the reader to understand, especially since someone normally translates for him (or a big dragon intimidates him into rephrasing).

The sweet spot (for me)

Brandon Sanderson's Tress of the Emerald Sea, however, had just the right amount of detail for me: just add water, and magic stuff happens. OK, there's a bit more to it than that, but I don't want to give spoilers, and that's all you really need to know.

My favorite magic systems

I tend to like magic that has . . .

  • an inner wellspring and . . .

  • is manipulated through instinct, image, and intention.

Perhaps because this is now I feel imagination and creativity itself work in, at least in my life: coming to some place inside me, drawing on those instincts and desires, picturing my goal, and opening my eyes to shape the world around me accordingly. What I find so thrilling and yet relatable about my favorite magic systems is that they're doing the same thing, just with breathtaking effects I can never manage.

That's probably why I like elemental or natural magic, or even the psi "magic" of the visual novel Gilded Shadows. Actually, Gilded Shadows, for all how most people would technically classify it as science fiction, probably has the "magic" system I admire the most; I love how the writer breaks it down, visualizes it, compartmentalizes the skillsets by something familiar yet new (chess pieces) that gives it an easily understandable structure, and scatters the details across the different storylines to provide a great deal of depth and logic to the system but never making me feel like there was too much detail. And maybe the "magic" Force of Star Wars is why I like that sci-fi series as well.

My favorite magic system from a fantasy source is that of the monarchs of the Enchanted Forest in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. I think it's because Patricia C. Wrede (through the main character of the second book, Mendanbar, but also to a lesser extent Daystar in the fourth book) gives such a good mental image of what the magic looks like and how it works; the image is fresh (an invisible thread-filled tapestry of magic tied to his land), something I've never read before or since, and yet it is so clear and simple, it only takes a paragraph or two (if I'm recalling correctly) to explain initially for everything Mendanbar to do thereafter make so much sense. So even though there are a lot of "soft" elements (the exact source of the magic or the original, rather arbitrary rule-maker is never explained, nor is why a sword is tied up in all of it), it's definitely a magic system, and one that really works for me.


A magic system isn't 100% cool to me unless it has some method of enhanced regeneration or healing. I have no other explanation for this other than I just find it completely awesome and want it so badly. I seriously think in an alternate universe I would have been living in some cottage in the woods somewhere as some secretly powerful but understated hedge-witch with a pack of wolves (not cats), the kind of person that the local village thinks is crazy but the one they always come to for healing and all-around sound life advice.

Costs and Limitations

I love a magic that is another form of our physical energy (our capacity to move, think, live). I like the limits to be similar to our physical strength: both able to be expanded through hard work and upkeep and have an innate cap at some point that varies from person to person.

However, I don't like that magical strength to be tied lockstep to physical strength, as it is with the magic in Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle. That limitation annoyed me, because it gave blanket gender and racial advantages that only drastic measures could overcome (without giving spoilers, I'll just say they weren't measures that were accessible to 99.99% of the population). I like the small, otherwise "weak" people to have a chance at being the magically strongest, thus giving them a competitive advantage. More than just keeping things interesting, to me, the whole point of being born able to work magic is a part of rebalancing the scales of an otherwise unfair world. True, some magic workers can still get full of themselves and abuse their powers anyway, but I like the idea of some force of Good originally granting the gift to give them a chance to do more good.

So I like magic and its limitations to be like all innate abilities: it can be related to other abilities, but it should be at least somewhat independent of the others or at least not tied lockstep to them. So, for example, though physical fitness could enhance magical ability (especially how physical fitness enhances cognitive ability in real life), it still should be theoretically possible to be an A+ mage who's a couch potato. To me, that isn't just fair but also reflects real life more accurately.

However, I did like in the Inheritance Cycle and many other series I've read how closely magic was tied to physical energy in terms of the cost, especially the cost of overextending one's magical reserve. I like how that debt draws on one's life force to make up the difference and therefore can be dangerous, even life-threatening. In the Gilded Shadows psi system, it can even cause brain damage.

Good vs. evil

Finally, I also enjoy viewing magic as good or bad ("white" or "black"). I like it when there's something that inherently changes about the magic when you use it for good or for evil—which in turn changes the user. Perhaps this reflects my belief that there is an ultimate source of Good and an ultimate source of evil, one that is lesser than the Good and so incapable of originality that it can only be a perversion of the Good. I also believe that every choice we make draws us closer to one of those two forces and changes us accordingly.

Perhaps that's another reason I like Star Wars, with its "dark" and "light" sides, which can not just differ in its abilities but literally change the user's mind and body. I know of no clearer example of this transformation than in the Knights of the Old Republic role-playing games, in which your choices influence your alignment to the light or dark side of the Force. "Light-siders" take on a glow, and they stand in a straighter and nobler posture in their character screen; I never played the dark side, so I can't recall with certainty what they were supposed to look like, but I think "dark-siders" get bloodshot eyes (maybe even taking on a yellowish tinge), hunch menacingly, and have standout veins.

Wrapping up

Wow, I had a lot more to say about magic than I thought I did. (As per usual.) Good thing I scratched my plan to tackle other topics in this post. (I was originally planning to do all of them, then just three, then. . . .)

I'm sure I didn't even remember all my opinions, so I'll probably be updating this post at some point. But any other nuance of magic that I can think of isn't a passionate preference. For the moment, I've covered all the points I love and hate about magic.


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